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Volume 405: debated on Thursday 15 May 2003

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How many small to medium sized abattoirs there are in England. [113305]

On 1 May, there were in England 116 licensed low throughput and 172 licensed full throughput red-meat abattoirs; and 43 licensed low throughput and 68 licensed full throughput white-meat abattoirs.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that answer, which I think shows the dramatic reduction in the number of abattoirs in England and the United Kingdom as a whole. Will he share my concern that the last abattoir in my constituency, the family firm JJJ Heathcote & Son, which has been in operation for six generations, has closed because of the huge additional costs imposed upon abbatoirs by the animal by-products regulations—particularly those relating to biological testing and the disposal of blood, which will add costs to the company, which went out of active trading on 1 May, of £525 a week? The Minister can see that that is a huge additional sum. What is the Minister going to do to safeguard animal welfare and reduce the inconvenience and costs to farmers, by ensuring that in future small abattoirs remain in business?

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern because he referred to the closure of an abattoir in his constituency. I understand that the decision to close that abattoir was a commercial one, not attributable directly to the introduction of the animal by-products regulations, although they may be a factor.

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is precisely what I understand, and I do not think that it helps to try to nail commercial decisions on to the introduction of regulations. It should be remembered that there is over-production in the abattoir industry in this country. To try to help, in view of the importance of the local and regional economy, we have refocused our policy on the abattoir sector, which means that abattoirs are eligible to apply for processing and marketing grants and to make use of rural enterprise schemes, in order to gain assistance from those elements in the England rural development programme.

Should not we be doing more not only to protect existing abattoirs but to encourage the re-establishment of local abattoirs? Will not that minimise stress to animals, reduce the risk and scale of any disease outbreaks and—as important as anything—encourage the availability of locally produced meat, which many consumers say that they are looking for and would support? Cannot we do much more than we are doing?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the need to ensure the availability of abattoir capacity in order to help local and regional products, and we are doing so in conjunction with the Government offices and the regional development agencies. However, one has to remember that we are talking about commercial activities, and the Meat and Livestock Commission has estimated that in 1999, comparing peak-week activity with average activity, the overcapacity amounted to 49 per cent, for cattle, 55 per cent, for sheep and 27 per cent, for pigs. I came across problems in the abattoir industry when I was first elected to a local authority in 1973, so many of these issues are not new. We should bear in mind, in trying to assist local and regional provision of facilities, that these are commercial activities and that there is still an element of over-provision.

Would the right hon. Gentleman keep in mind the fact that the closure of abattoirs has very serious implications for animal welfare, as of course animals have to be transported very considerable distances if local abattoirs close?

I entirely accept what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, and I can assure him that we keep that in mind, and the fact that, in no small measure, the way we try to assist the regional and local economies is associated with that issue.

I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the Countryside Agency report on local food, in which it says:

"the erosion of the infrastructure that used to support local food markets was identified as a key barrier. In particular, the closure of local abattoirs, due to increasing legislation".
Under the heading "Legislation", it says:
"Regulations were felt to have a disproportionately high impact on businesses in the local food sector, which tend to be small/micro businesses. Much legislation is felt to be impractical, inappropriate, and unduly expensive to implement, particularly in the meat sector."
What response has the Department made to that very important Countryside Agency report?

Our response has to be proportionate because, on the one hand, yes, testing places burdens on industry, but many of those tests are either national or international requirements and, on the other, people want food safety to be enhanced, and they will find that encouraging. Wherever possible, we have to ensure that the burdens that we impose are proportionate and reasonable, that they are not excessive and that we do not go in for gold plating, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would accept that food safety is of great importance. The Countryside Agency focused on the economics of the local food industry, which of course is another important aspect and something that we are very keen to develop and promote.

The Minister has tried to gloss over the very worrying closure of small abattoirs and, in some strange way, to attribute that to commercial reasons. Of course he is quite right: those commercial decisions are taken because of the huge increase in costs to small abattoirs and the huge increase in regulation. Those commercial decisions are directly attributable to the Government. Will he now tell the House how he perceives the additional costs that result from the animal by-products regulations, which are about to come into effect? How many small abattoirs need to have their incinerators upgraded? How much extra will that cost; and what approaches has he made to the European Commission about allowing small abattoirs grants for the capital costs that will be incurred because of the animal by-products regulations?

The hon. Gentleman should be more reasonable in his approach. I have not tried to gloss over anything—I have made it very clear that very difficult issues face those in this industry—but it is equally unreasonable and unhelpful to try to suggest that closures are always associated with a particular set of regulations.

Because they are losing money in advance of the introduction of the regulations. That would be and is a reason in specific cases. I thought that the hon. Gentleman and his party were in favour of competition and believed in the effectiveness of the market. As for seeking to use grant schemes, I have already indicated that we have made available processing and marketing grants and rural enterprise scheme opportunities, as well as working with the regional development agencies and Government offices in the regions to consider the need for such provision in the regions. The regional and local provision of food and local sourcing are extremely important and something that we seek to support.