My Lords, I am advised by the Food Standards Agency, which is responsible for meat hygiene controls, that following public consultation it has significantly amended its proposals for full-cost recovery. Implementation will be delayed until April 2012, staged over three years. Support will be provided for abattoirs slaughtering up to 5,000 cattle or equivalent per year. A financial impact assessment of the amended proposals is in preparation and will be published this summer.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. Will the agency move much more towards a risk-based, proportionate regime than it has in the past? Secondly, will it consider outside—in other words, private—operators taking over the task that is currently done by state employees?
My Lords, it is certainly the ambition of the agency to move to a more risk-based approach but, as my noble friend will know, that has considerable implications in terms of EU law and it will take some time for such an approach to be worked through. On her second question, I am aware that the agency will discuss tomorrow the findings of the Macdonald taskforce, so it is probably premature for me to say more on that point.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a farmer. Would the noble Earl agree that small and medium-sized abattoirs are essential to our communities? There are serious animal welfare concerns in having to drive animals for miles to gets them slaughtered. The stress on the animals also causes the meat to be not so good. In Worcestershire, we have one abattoir left, and the nearest one to us is in fact in Herefordshire. Do the Government intend to encourage small abattoirs to stay open? Is there any possibility for mobile abattoirs to be developed?
My Lords, smaller abattoirs are extremely important to the rural economy, as the noble Countess rightly says. They are more likely to be rural. The support to be provided to those abattoirs processing up to 5,000 cattle—a higher threshold than was previously proposed—is intended to help preserve the provision of local services to the livestock industry. That will helpfully reduce the impact on small livestock producers, the rural economy, animal welfare and indeed consumer choice. As regards mobile abattoirs, I am not aware what initiatives are being undertaken, although I believe that there are a few around, so it will be necessary for me to seek further advice on that point.
My Lords, the agency has now proposed a stepped system of discounts. For the first 1,000 livestock units processed, the reduction on the full cost would be a maximum of 70 per cent. The next 1,000 livestock units would be subject to a 50 per cent reduction and the next 3,000 subject to a 25 per cent reduction. That will directly assist those smaller abattoirs, many of which are based in Wales.
I find it very unusual for the Minister who usually answers on health to be answering an abattoir Question, but I am very impressed by his knowledge. Can he tell us whether there is a health implication, whether the extra costs that were to be passed on were necessary for health and whether they will be continued to be carried out even if the costs are not being passed on?
My Lords, there is no direct health implication. What has happened over the past few years is that the costs of regulation have progressively been borne by the Food Standards Agency, as opposed to the industry. There has been a decision taken in principle that the regulator should not subsidise the industry that it regulates. That is the reason for the review of the charging arrangements.
My Lords, did the noble Lord indicate in his Answer, and will he confirm, that we owe this folly more to our lords and masters in Brussels than to our very own department for the ruin of agriculture? Does he think that the British people would have voted in 1975 to stay in what they were assured was a Common Market if they had thought that this sort of folly was going to be visited upon them by Brussels?
My Lords, it is quite correct that European legislation requires the national competent authority to carry out official controls in order to verify that food businesses comply with food hygiene requirements. EU law requires the competent authority to charge food businesses for meat hygiene and welfare at slaughter—the official controls—and sets minimum charging rates. Having said that, I do not think that there is any self-respecting country that would wish to neglect meat hygiene, which has a direct implication for human health.