HC Deb 20 November 1969 vol 791 cc1525-31
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement.

The Report of the Joint Committee on the Use of Antibiotics in Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine has been laid before Parliament and published today. My right hon. Friends and I would like to thank the committee for its detailed and precise analysis of a most complex matter and for its clear findings and recommendations.

The Committee found that the administration of antibiotics to farm livestock poses certain hazards to human and animal health since it has led to the emergence of strains of bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics. The committee was satisfied that these hazards can largely be avoided and has put forward a number of recommendations to that end.

We accept, in general, the committee's proposals for the control of antibiotics.

The committee's principal recommendation is that antibiotics should be classified as either "feed" or "therapeutic" and that in future only "feed" antibiotics should be available without prescription for use in feedingstuffs. The committee also defines "feed" antibiotics in a way which will enable us to ensure that hazards to human health cannot arise from their use in feedingstuffs. The use of antibiotics on prescription by the veterinary profession would not be limited. We accept these recommendations.

As a consequence of its main proposal, the committee recommends that the use of penicillin and the tetracyclines in feedingstuffs should be prohibited; and that certain other drugs which are now freely available should also be available only on prescription. We also accept these recommendations.

Some of the committee's more detailed recommendations and longer-term proposals on research and veterinary epidemiology will need further study.

The implementation of these recommendations will require consultations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and the other health Ministers will, therefore, be consulting medical and pharmaceutical interests. I and the other agricultural Ministers will be consulting veterinary, agricultural and animal feedingstuffs interests. We are proceeding to these consultations immediately.

Mr. Stodart

I echo the thanks the right hon. Gentleman has expressed to the committee, with perhaps a particular emphasis as the Chairman, Professor Swann, is a constituent of mine.

The right hon. Gentleman will understand that this is an extremely complicated matter for a layman to understand, and I would wish to read and study the report before commenting on it.

When will the recommendations about the "feed" antibiotics operate? What about existing stocks? Are they large in number? Whilst the economic advantages of using antibiotics must, of course, take second place to the health aspect, has the right hon. Gentleman made any calculation of the cost that will be involved?

Will the right hon. Gentleman keep the House informed of the progress of his consultations, as it is possible that we might wish to ask him to ask his right hon. Friend for a debate on the matter?

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said.

On the question of cost, he will know that the committee says that it believes its recommendations could be implemented without adverse effects on animal husbandry or veterinary medicine.

I cannot give a reply on the volume of stocks in the country, because this will be the subject of consultations. The question of "feed" antibiotics is another matter which will have to be discussed with manufacturers, because they will have to let us know how long it will take to build up stocks of the alternative antibiotics. I hope that this can be done promptly and speedily.

Mrs. Joyce Butler

Whilst welcoming the report, I am somewhat disturbed by the complexities of the methods of carrying out the recommendations. Will my right hon. Friend look very seriously at the possibility of at least implementing the recommendations about preventing the use of certain therapeutic antibiotics without prescription, and of adding new Clauses to the Agriculture Bill now going through the House, or making some other Amendment to the Bill, so that this can be carried out very quickly, bearing in mind the important consequences for human health?

Mr. Hughes

This will be done as quickly as possible. The action to which my hon. Friend refers will have to be carried out by Orders which would be initiated by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. But I can assure her that we are fully seized of the importance and urgency of the matter.

At the same time, there is no cause for immediate alarm in this matter. We shall act urgently, because we believe this to be necessary, but we must not allow ourselves to become a nation of hypochondriacs.

Mr. Kitson

Will the right hon. Gentleman have consultations with the Secretary of State for Social Services, bearing in mind that paragraph 7.18 of the report says that doctors are also unwisely using antibiotics? Will he give an assurance that legislation will be brought before the House at the earliest possible moment?

Mr. Hughes

My right hon. Friend and I are working in close co-operation in this matter, and my right hon. Friend will have heard what the hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Alfred Morris

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his very prompt action in this important matter. Can he confirm that there is no reason for immediate anxiety over the hazards disclosed in the report?

Mr. Hughes

I believe that to be right. When hon. Members read the report I think that they will appreciate that while there is a need for urgent action we are taking preventive rather than curative measures in tackling the problem I think that I can also say that we are the first country in the world to tackle the matter in this way.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

I shall always have a considerable respect for the scientists who advise the Minister and the Agricultural Research Council, but, whilst I am sure that it is right to take immediate action in the light of the report, will the right hon. Gentleman consider the continuing anxiety that when new therapeutic substances come on the market something has to get out of control before anything is done? May we have an assurance that as a result of the report there will be a further tightening up of the anticipatory machinery as well as the post hoc machinery?

Mr. Hughes

It is precisely the kind of action the hon. Gentleman describes that we are taking now. We are acting in advance of any injurious effect of antibiotics. I think that our action is right.

Mr. Dalyell

On the narrow issue in paragraph 10.17, will my right hon. Friend, without further consultation, go ahead with the proposal to interest universities in setting up departments of veterinary epidemiology as a distinct discipline? Could the Government also go ahead with a directive to the Medical Research Council and the Agricultural Research Council to carry out the proposal in paragraph 12.38 without further consultation, as it is urgent? Could some system of permanent monitoring be set up to study the effect of the prevalence of antibiotic resistances?

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's suggestions. My right hon. Friend and I have it in mind to have the type of discussion my hon. Friend describes. On the question of monitoring, we shall go a little further than the report's recommendation. We are considering the desirability of examining feedingstuffs, including imported feeding-stuffs, for antibiotic residues and their possible effect in producing resistant organisms.

Mr. Maude

With reference to the Minister's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke), is he not aware that this is by no means the first time that the Government have been forced to take what he described today as urgent action in respect of drugs and pesticides used in agriculture and food production, which scientific experts have continually advised the Government and claimed were harmless? He must not be surprised if people are a little worried about the steps taken to prevent these things.

Mr. Hughes

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's anxiety, but I am rather surprised at his criticism. After all, it was the present Government that set up the Swann Committee, as a result of anxieties that members of the Government felt about the matter. Already, following the announcement that the report was to be published, many countries, including the United States and countries in Europe, are asking for a copy of it.

Mr. Pardoe

Whilst I welcome the report, and particularly the Government's acceptance of the need to control penicillin and tetracyclines, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reassure the House that there will be a public and continuing method whereby the whole system can be reviewed over the years, in view of the public's feeling that scientists, like the rest of us, can change their minds on these matters?

Mr. Hughes

There is a proposal in the report for an antibiotics committee. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Medicines Commission has to advise on expert advisory committees required under the Medicines Act. This recommendation will be brought to the Commission's attention forthwith. The action the hon. Gentleman suggests is being taken.

Mr. Oakes

In view of the very specific recommendations in the report, particularly about feedingstuffs, is there any likelihood that the industry itself will voluntarily stop adding antibiotics to feedingstuffs forthwith before legislation needs to be introduced?

Mr. Hughes

As I said in my statement, we shall be entering into consultations, not only with feedingstuffs manufacturers, but also with the industry itself. This poses a problem. We shall need a reasonable phasing out period. There are stocks in existence now. Therefore, the House will appreciate that my right hon. Friend and I will have to have the most detailed consultations with all the interests concerned. I assure the House that we shall take the action as quickly as we can.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

Will the Minister bear in mind that what is wanted from him primarily is an early decision so that the phasing out and the action can follow each other in quick succession?

Mr. Hughes

My right hon. Friends and I have taken the most important decisions in the acceptance of all the major recommendations of the report. We must now proceed to consultation, because, after all, the interested parties have not yet had an opportunity to study the Report. This is not unreasonable.

Mr. Jopling

Is the Minister aware that virtually all farmers will accept the need to control antibiotics where human and animal health is at risk? I accept his statement that this proposal will have no adverse effect on animal husbandry, but will he accept that it will have a quite considerable effect in increasing the cost of food production? Will he give an undertaking that it will be taken into consideration at the next Price Review?

Mr. Hughes

There is no indication in the report that there will be any cost increase. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I hope, as he has said, that the farmers will co-operate, and I am sure they will.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House.