HC Deb 30 June 1987 vol 118 cc375-8 3.30 pm
Mr. Ron Brown (Leith)

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement about the contamination of food in Edinburgh's Safeway stores.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth)

I understand that a small number of items of food and drink have been found to be contaminated in Edinburgh Safeway Stores. Analysis of other suspect items is continuing. The three stores affected are Cameron Toll, Davidson's Mains, and East Craigs. The Lothian and Borders police have instituted an investigation of the circumstances and these inquiries are continuing as a matter of urgency. Two members of the public have required medical treatment.

As this is a local incident, responsibility for the public health interest lies with the director of environmental health at Edinburgh district council. He is in close contact with the police. The company is taking increased security measures at all six of its Edinburgh stores. I strongly deprecate the reckless and irresponsible action which has placed the public at risk. I assure the House that I and the Scottish Home and Health Department will keep in close touch with the police and the environmental health authorities and will take any necessary further steps.

Mr. Brown

Does the Minister accept that, because of the lack of information from the statutory authorities and the police, many people are naturally alarmed about the products being produced for Safeway so that, instead of public co-operation, we have had a boycott? I appreciate that officialdom must do its job, but not enough details have been released about the three stores, the products affected, the type of poisons and what is going on. If the Minister wants public support, he will have to ask his subordinates in Scotland to explain exactly what is happening. We understand that there is a letter, but it may be sub judice and something that we cannot discuss here. More information must be released about the matter involving Safeway, whether it is in Edinburgh or elsewhere. It is a very important issue.

Mr. Forsyth

The provision of information is a matter for the police and the environmental health office at Edinburgh district council. They had to take into account the need to analyse substances. I welcome the joint press conference held yesterday by the police and the director of environmental health to give the facts of the case.

As regards public confidence, the company has endeavoured to minimise any risk, but obviously shoppers should remain vigilant.

Mr. Alastair Darling (Edinburgh, Central)

Will the Minister assure the House that, in the event of this unfortunate episode recurring either in any of Edinburgh's five Safeway stores or elsewhere, an announcement will be made to the public without delay? I understand that, although a press conference was held last night, the food in question was discovered at the Davidson's Mains or East Craigs stores either on Friday or Saturday of last week. Does the Minister accept that, in the event of those foods being fed to a child or an infirm person, the consequences could be most unfortunate? Whatever may be the understandable commercial concerns of Safeway, will the Minister encourage the police and other authorities to make an announcement to the public quickly so that those members of the public who believe that they have bought contaminated food will know and can return it to the store and otherwise help the police with their inquiries?

Mr. Forsyth

I can only imagine that the hon. Gentleman did not listen to my answer. [Interruption.] My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has no direct locus in this matter; it is a matter for the director of environmental health of Edinburgh district council. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware of that. My right hon. and learned Friend, in common with everyone in this House and elsewhere, is naturally concerned and has arranged for officials to obtain reports on the situation from both the environmental health director and the police.

I am sure that everything possible is being done to bring whoever is responsible to justice. I do not believe that it is in anyone's interest to exaggerate or raise the political temperature in this matter.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

Is it not unfortunate that the Minister, on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box, is continuing with his bad habit of defending the interests of big business? Does he not understand that Safeway has a responsibility in this matter? Its public relations officer was in Edinburgh on Sunday and refused point blank to name the stores in which contaminated foodstuffs had been found. It is an absolute scandal to put the responsibility for the lack of information on the Lothian and Borders police, on the one hand, and the environmental health department, on the other.

Will the Minister change his bad habits and make sure that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) has said, if there is any recurrence of this nature in any Safeway or other store in Scotland the interests of the public will be put before the interests of big business?

Mr. Forsyth

May I say that I am delighted to see the hon. Gentleman back in the House. May I also assure him that the Scottish Office has every confidence in the judgment that has been shown by the director of environmental health of Edinburgh district council. There has been no suggestion that anything other than the overwhelming interest of the public's health has been considered by the parties concerned.

As regards the conduct of the store, I understand that it has taken a number of measures, including the introduction of uniformed security guards and stepping-up closed circuit television surveillance. It has also ensured that staff are regularly checking the shelves for any signs that foodstuffs have been tampered with. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chose to make the point that he did on a matter of such seriousness.

Mr. Allan Stewart (Eastwood)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is quite disgraceful that Labour Members should seek to use this occasion to gain cheap press headlines in Scotland? Does he also agree that the people concerned will be much reassured by what he has said this afternoon? There is full public confidence in the officials who are handling this matter.

Mr. Forsyth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that the director of environmental health and the police are doing everything possible to remove this problem from Edinburgh. It is not a matter that can be dealt with by instant judgments. One of the difficulties is in obtaining detail on the analysis of the extent to which products have been tampered with. I assure my hon. Friend that everything is being done.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

Is not the Minister's confidence in the Safeway management's handling of this matter somewhat misplaced in the light of its initial somewhat complacent statement, when the first contaminated products were found, that it thought that it had got to the bottom of the matter? Now that contamination has recurred, what will the Minister's Department do to ensure that public safety is maintained?

Mr. Forsyth

There seems to be an attack of sudden deafness on the Opposition Benches. The hon. Gentleman should have listened to my reply. I assure him that officials in the Scottish Home and Health Department, although they have no locus in the matter, are trying to obtain reports on the situation from both the director of environmental health and the police. We very much welcome the fact that a joint press conference was held yesterday in Edinburgh by the director of environmental health and the police, where the full facts as they were known were given. The situation is developing. It is easy to sit on the Back Benches and snipe at people who are doing their best to carry out their professional duty.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I speak as one whose constituents are involved. Does the analysis suggest in any way how the contamination was carried out? What is the Government's thinking as to the penalties that should be imposed on anyone who is caught?

Mr. Forsyth

Contamination has been found or is still being checked in coleslaw, cottage cheese, natural yoghurt, Safeway's cola and grapefruit juice. I understand that a number of things have been found, including broken glass and small quantities of arsenic, but the products affected are still being tested. The amounts that have been discovered are very low. As we react to the situation, one of the problems is the speed with which it is possible to obtain analytical reports. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that penalties are not a matter for me.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

At the risk of being non-partisan, I congratulate the Minister on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box, although he is there by force of circumstance. Much doubt was put in many people's minds at the time of the original press conference. The police said that they had no firm clues, but they were confident that only four items had been affected, although only two had been found. Many people queried how that information could have been obtained if the police did not have any firm clues. That was combined with the assurance by the police and the company that no other stores were involved. Given that background and the withholding of information for a critical period over the weekend, is the Minister satisfied that all information that can be made available is being made available by the company to the police, the health authorities and the public?

Mr. Forsyth

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, but it would not be appropriate for me to comment on a matter affecting the police investigations.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

Does the Minister accept that, despite his irritation at having to appear at the Dispatch Box, there has been widespread public alarm about the matter and it is right that it should be aired in the House? Does he also accept that everyone on the Opposition Benches deplores the recent happenings, and that, if it is true, the use of ground glass, paraquat and arsenic, even in very small quantities, is a wicked and irresponsible act, and suggests an unbalanced mind at work?

It is difficult to comment while police inquiries are continuing, but may I reinforce the point made by several of my hon. Friends about the need to keep the public informed? I recognise that the Minister does not have direct responsibility, but he said that he is asking his officials to keep in touch. When he has received the reports, will he consult local authorities about the right balance to be struck between alarming the public, the perhaps understandable commercial interests and the safety that comes with knowledge? Does the hon. Gentleman accept, with me, that, in these difficult matters, to know is to be forearmed?

Mr. Forsyth

Public safety will always be paramount in any decisions that are made either by the police or by the environmental health officers. I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman about the depraved nature of the person who is responsible for carrying out the act, and the police are doing everything possible to bring him to justice.