My right hon. Friend the Minister has announced that a national meat hygiene service is to be established as an agency of his Department.
I welcome today's announcement that an agency is to be set up to replace the former piecemeal arrangements. When will that agency be fully operational, and what charging policy will be introduced? The Department should bear in mind the necessity to keep costs low and provide good value for money, to ensure that excellent British meat and meat products are available to the consumer at competitive prices.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Subject to the will of Parliament, the new agency will take over in late 1994 or early 1995. It will enable us to achieve consistent enforcement standards and a uniform basis for charging in Great Britain. By putting our own house in order, we shall be better placed to put pressure on the Commission and other member states to achieve the same standards across the Community. We are wholly committed to securing improvements in what is currently an unsatisfactory situation.
Does the Minister accept that very small abattoirs, which have to take into consideration the cost of visits by meat inspectors and vets, are very worried about the high costs of those visits when the new regulations come into force? Does he also accept that small abattoirs are very important to rural economies? Will he take on board representations made to him that those costs should be kept as low as possible?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. We agree entirely that small slaughterhouses are vital to rural communities. We have secured a special derogation for 12-to-20-animal units. Welfare and hygiene standards will apply to large or small slaughterhouses, but the point on charges is well taken.