HC Deb 27 July 1989 vol 157 cc1193-204 4.26 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer)

The Government have today published a White Paper "Food Safety—Protecting the Consumer". Copies have been placed in the Vote Office and in the Libraries of both Houses.

Consumers expect that the food they buy should be safe—and they are perfectly right to do so. All those who provide food—whether it be the farmer, the manufacturer, the caterer or the retailer—have a clear interest in the consumer's confidence. There is therefore no conflict between responsible producers of food and the Government's determination to set high—indeed, the highest practicable—standards of consumer protection. Those standards must be comprehensive, independent, up to date, and properly explained.

Already there exist wide-ranging laws which apply at every stage in the food chain. These are based, and action is taken, on the best available expertise and advice. The White Paper shows how comprehensive is the network of advisory committees on which the Government rely for independent, objective advice. Those committees, as well as advising Government, publish their reports and their findings.

There continue to be rapid developments and changes in food technology, in the range of products marketed, and also in consumer preferences. Great benefits are gained from this progress in terms of choice, convenience and value for money, but it means that our food legislation must keep pace so that consumers continue to be safeguarded. Therefore, after consultation with all interests, such as manufacturers and retailers, including enforcement and consumer bodies, the Government now intend to introduce legislative changes at the earliest possible opportunity.

The White Paper sets out the main changes proposed. These will include tighter controls on unfit food and food which is not of the nature, substance or quality demanded. These controls will apply to food before it is put on sale and allow suspect food to be withheld while investigations take place. The legislation will provide powers to adapt the law to cover new technical developments such as food irradiation, to ensure that the process is properly controlled. Powers will be strengthened to control contaminants and residues, including those which might arise from bad practices on farms or in manufacture. Ministers will have powers to make emergency control orders to deal with potentially serious problems, such as accidental contamination. Ministers will also be able to set training requirements for those who handle food commercially, building on existing good practice and thereby increasing the numbers of people trained by the food industry, local authorities and others.

To be effective, the rules and standards laid down must be applied. Most enforcement is carried out by local authorities. In a previous job, I found their work in that respect to be of particular importance. They have long experience and have developed considerable expertise in food safety, and the Government intend that that expertise should continue to be used in full. The registration of all food premises, for which the proposed new legislation will provide, will help local authorities to identify premises. Also, new enforcement measures will strengthen the existing system so that, for example, local authorities will be able to take action to have whole batches of unfit food condemned. At the moment, a local authority has power only to condemn the particular part of the food that has been found to be dangerous.

No matter how comprehensive and rigorous are the controls on food production and marketing, consumers themselves have a part to play. They have the responsibility for good kitchen hygiene, proper cooking, and reading and following instructions on the care, storage and cooking of food.

The proposals in the White Paper demonstrate the Government's commitment to food safety. We are always ready to consider adaptation when needed. We believe that our proposed legislation will provide the right framework for protecting consumers now and in the future.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I had hoped that the advent of a new Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would signal a new and safer approach to food in Britain. Sadly, having heard the Minister's statement and, more importantly, read his White Paper, my hopes have been dashed. The Minister's statement and his White Paper contain a mere seven proposals—no more—and they reek of complacency. The White Paper, which was heralded in advance by multitudinous press briefings as a new approach to food hygiene, has turned out to be little more than media hype. Very little in the Minister's proposals would have helped to prevent recent food poisoning incidents.

Opposition Members welcome the proposals for training staff in handling food, but will the requirements be statutory? That question is absolutely vital. Similarly, we welcome the proposal for the registration of commercial food premises, but those powers are useless unless local authorities have the resources with which to carry out that function. Plainly, at the moment they do not have the resources, either financially or in terms of personnel.

In the statement today and in the White Paper, the Minister says nothing about meat products. It has been suggested that the proposed legislation will follow the line of the American legislation and will not cover meat and meat products. Will the Minister enlighten us about the position?

Apart from those measures, little in the Bill will help to combat the contamination of our food. There is clearly a commitment to force irradiation of food on to the people of Britain, but that will do little to tackle the real problem. There is no need for irradiation if food is good and wholesome. We need irradiation only when food is not good and wholesome.

The Minister's statement and the White Paper are the result of five years' consultation. I doubt whether in the history of government such a long consultation has produced so little. The very first line in the first chapter of the White Paper states: The variety and quality of our food have never been better. [HON. MEMBERS: "Quite right."] Despite the shouts of Conservative Members, that statement is not only grossly irresponsible but highly inaccurate. It is also an insult to the many thousands of people who have suffered from food poisoning. Where have Conservative Members been for the past few years? Do they not know that food poisoning incidents have trebled in the seven years up to 1988? Have they forgotten the salmonella and eggs saga last autumn? Have they forgotten the listeria in cheese——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I apologise to the hon. Member on the Front bench for interrupting him but he must address his question to the Minister and not to Back Benchers. He is seeking answers to a ministerial statement.

Dr. Clark

By "they", I meant the Government collectively. I was not intending to address Back Benchers. I will, however, now address my remarks to the Minister. As the White Paper is under the name of the previous Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and various right hon. Members on the Front Bench today, I felt that it was right to refer to them as "they" and not to address the Minister who made the statement on the White Paper, as he was not a signatory to it. You may understand now, Mr. Speaker. why I did so.

Are the Government and the Minister not aware that in the past few months we have had the worst outbreak of anthrax for years? Do they not know that the current salmonella outbreak in north Wales and the north-west has tragically resulted in three deaths? If the Government had acted more quickly and more responsibly, the severity of the outbreak could have been avoided.

I take issue with the Minister's concluding words when he said: The proposals in the White Paper demonstrate the Goverment's commitment to food safety. I am afraid that they do, and I am afraid that they will be found to be inadequate.

Mr. Gummer

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman fell below his usual standards in addressing the House. Having made a number of untrue and general allegations, he produced not one example of what he would like to have added to the White Paper. The hon. Gentleman has a long record of stirring up anxiety and worry and refusing to give credit for the major changes that the Government have brought. The public will judge him on this as they judged him on the issue of the Chernobyl lamb, when he was seen to be wrong almost every time he spoke in the House.

The hon. Gentleman did not mention, for example, the major change in the legal onus upon those who provide food. No longer will they be able to rely upon the fact that they have a warranty from someone else. They will have to have due diligence in finding out whether the food that they offer for sale is of a standard suitable for the public. He did not mention, for example, that the new system will enable batches of food to be condemned not only when placed on sale to the public, but when in warehouses or landed in the docks. The hon. Gentleman did not mention, for example, that the registration of premises will mean that local environmental health officers and trading standards officers will know precisely which premises they should be inspecting and where they have to ensure that the standards are upheld.

The hon. Gentleman tried to suggest that the document did not cover meat products. I believe that he picked that up from his hon. Friend the shadow Health Secretary, who did not just try to suggest it, but said that he thought that it did not cover meat products. Nothing in the document suggests that it does not cover meat products. It does cover meat products and no one reading it could possibly imagine otherwise. What it has to do with the United States I do not know.

The hon. Gentleman clearly does not understand irradiation, because he says that we need irradiation only when food is not good or wholesome. If food is not good or is unwholesome, irradiation will not cover up its badness, its taste or its smell, and it would be the last thing to use on unwholesome food.

The hon. Gentleman did not say that we are taking on board some of the toughest possible systems for protecting the public, first, by allowing irradiation, which in some circumstances improves on present safety techniques. I do not know how the hon. Gentleman deals with his own cooking arrangements, but if he uses herbs of any kind he must know that the mechanisms now used to ensure that certain imported herbs and spices are without contamination are methods which we do not want to see used, but they are the only methods unless we have irradiation. Irradiation will be centrally controlled, the premises upon which it can be carried out will have to be licensed, and everything that is irradiated will have to carry a clear statement that it has been irradiated.

The hon. Gentleman would do better if he were willing to support the Government's considerable changes and help by distinguishing between when, perfectly properly, true dangers, difficulties and anxieties should be expressed, about which people should be warned, and when people are trying to make money by stirring up anxieties unnecessarily.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is perfectly right to draw our attention to the negative irresponsibility of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark)? His proposals will be welcomed by most consumers, but will he work hard on a difficulty which emerges from the proposals? There is a loophole, because imported food does not meet the standards for food produced in this country. Will he do all that he can in Europe to ensure that standards in other European countries are as good as ours?

Mr. Gummer

My right hon. Friend rightly says that if we are to ask producers and retailers to uphold the highest standards they must not be undermined by products from other countries which do not meet the same standards. The Government intend to ensure that in all circumstances imported food meets the same standards. If it does not, it will be removed from sale.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I welcome the White Paper and the fact that legislation will be forthcoming, but may I push the Minister a little further? Will he ban bovine somatotropin and also insubstantial additives such as colour? Will he further ensure that pesticides which have been widely outlawed elsewhere, such as Alar, are proscribed? Above all—the Minister will be aware of this from his previous responsibility—will he ensure, as the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) asked, that if there is enforcement control in the legislation the enforcement agencies are given more resources than they have at present to make a reality of what will otherwise be only words?

Mr. Gummer

Between now and our having the parliamentary opportunity to introduce a Bill I shall be carefully considering resources and mechanisms, especially those for enforcement.

I have much sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's views about additives. My small son is very much affected by additives. I am prepared to lend my son for a day to the people who say that additives do not have an effect on children, so long as they give him a glass of a particular brand of soft drink. Once he has had that, they will not want him for the rest of the day. We all recognise the problems of additives and their effect on people. The only way to deal with such problems is to be honourable and to use the scientific evidence available to ensure that people are aware of what products contain and are able to make their own choices.

I do not want to ban things—I want people to choose what they want. Although my child is affected by tartrazine, it is up to me to provide products that do not contain it. If tartrazine is not dangerous and people want it, they should be able to have it. One is on a slippery slope once one starts banning things because one does not like them. We ban only products that are dangerous, and in the two days that I have been in this job I have taken action to do exactly that. We do not have the power to ban something that I consider to be dangerous, but it will have to carry a warning that will make it clear even to the least responsible consumer exactly what it contains.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Alar. One cannot ban everything that anybody in the world, of any standing, thinks is damaging. Each product must be tested extremely carefully, and one must accept the advice of independent testers and the best advisers on the subject. I am prepared to ban things only according to the very best advice. If there is significant doubt, I prefer to follow a safe route. When we are given clear advice in the opposite direction, we must base our actions on that. The British legal system could make it extremely difficult to prove the reason, rationale and sense of taking a decision to ban something.

BST is a synthetic version of a naturally occurring hormone; it is not a drug. Every cow that has produced milk has had it within its body. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we must be tough on products that do damage, but we must be tougher on people who try to spread alarm about safe products.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The Minister has given comprehensive answers to a number of questions. I hope that the House will concentrate on the detail of the statement because I should like to call as many hon. Members as possible.

Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn)

I welcome the White Paper and I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to early legislation. Given the serious outbreak of salmonella poisoning in my constituency in north Wales, and in the north-west, will my right hon. Friend consider issuing early guidelines to butchers and delicatessens about the danger of letting cooked meat stand near raw meat and of using the same equipment for slicing cooked and raw meat? Does he agree—this is important for the Bill—that in the event of an outbreak, to ensure the fullest and most effective co-operation between local authorities as public health authorities and health authorities, there must be a full exchange of information between them?

Concern is being expressed in north Wales about the delay in announcing the source of the outbreak because the company suspected is so far implicated on the basis of circumstantial evidence and not scientific evidence. I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree that the Welsh Office was right to name the company believed to be the source earlier today, even though its identity was not 100 per cent. certain. People should be warned as early as possible.

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that all hon. Members will want to express their sadness at events in north Wales and Chester. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales took exactly the right decision by insisting that the statement was made so that people were aware of the dangers and could therefore guard against the products.

My hon. Friend mentioned a problem that we have had in the past. In certain circumstances, but not in this one, we are prevented by the nature of the law from taking action. Under the forthcoming legislation, we shall be able to take such action. I will consider the possibility of further guidelines. However, the points that my hon. Friend raised have been made in almost every document year in and year out. He mentioned the need for training in food handling, which we shall be able to provide for in the legislation.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

The Minister will have noticed that his "comprehensive strategy" in chapter 7, entitled "Conclusion", appears to occupy less space than the ministerial signature under the foreword. It offers little more than vague and rather banal comment. Does the Minister recognise that the Government's reduction in research on food health makes it more important to ensure that there are sufficient environmental health officers? What is the current shortage of environmental health officers? Is it not several hundred at least? What urgent steps will the Minister take to remedy that deficiency? Until he does that his document will not be worth the paper it is written on.

Mr. Gummer

I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman's comments. The comprehensive strategy paragraph is merely a summation. All the details of what is being done are in the previous chapters. If the hon. Gentleman had looked at that carefully he would have seen a great deal there to support. He is wrong to say that the Government have cut back on food research. We have undoubtedly had an increasing commitment to food safety research. We are building and shall open a new laboratory in Norwich which will provide even better facilities for work being done in Reading and Norwich. The work that was done in Bristol will largely be concentrated there.

EHOs deal not only with food safety but with a range of other matters. The proportion of time that they spend on different matters varies between local authorities. We have already sent out a questionnaire to enable us to assess the resources and people necessary, the differences between local authorities and the best way to ensure that resources are available. The Government and the Opposition are not far apart in their determination to ensure food safety.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

I welcome the statement. First, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the legislation will insist that food is safe and wholesome when it enters the food chain? That follows from the question raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). Secondly, am I right in thinking that my right hon. Friend will put more personal responsibility on the people who handle food throughout the food chain? My third question follows from that of the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). Will my right hon. Friend extend the authority of EHOs to car boot sales in football grounds and other places, which are currently outside their scope?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is right to point to another major change that will take place, which will ensure that we can take account of residues found in animals that are still alive. Until now, one of the problems was that we could not say that particular animals must remain on the farm and not go to slaughter until any residues above the maximum permitted level were removed from the body. That is an important new change and an earnest of our intent to ensure that at every stage in the food chain, not least the beginning, we stop microbiological growths or other contaminants.

My hon. Friend is right that we shall put more onus on the responsibility of food handlers, who will have to rely on their diligence rather than on warranties given by others. The legislation will apply to all premises where food is sold. We shall look carefully at the point about car boot sales, which was not in the forefront of my briefings in the past two days.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I welcome the statement and I am glad that it includes Northern Ireland. Will EHOs have greater powers to take action earlier, or will there continue to be a prolonged delay before people are warned? May I commend the Minister for including not only producers but the end handlers—the customers? We are living in an age in which we have grown careless. Is there any reason why, 17 years after the House suspended Stormont, we are still governing Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom by Orders in Council? Northern Ireland Ministers are signatories to the White Paper and at least one adviser is a Northern Ireland Member. Why should there be a further delay before the legislation comes into effect in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Gummer

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not discuss the position in Northern Ireland during this statement on food policy. I can assure him that if the Bill is enacted, it will be applied to Northern Ireland in the usual way. He is right to point to the need for greater powers to enable EHOs to act more quickly. If there is a serious outbreak, they will be able to obtain ministerial permission to act, without the long business of going through the courts and the rest, which may increase the dangers. They will be able to deal with products before they come on sale. That will solve a real difficulty. Previously people could say, "We are not going to put them on sale," but we shall now be able to stop them. The information is already good but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan) suggested, we must seek ways to eradicate problems caused by different agencies failing to act together quickly.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that as food is a biological product, there is no prospect of offering the consumer the impossible dream of absolute and permanent food safety? Does he agree that it is much better to concentrate, as he has done in the White Paper, on matters on which it is appropriate for the Government to take action by means of regulations, research and information? Does he further agree that it is incumbent on all parts of the food chain, from farmer through manufacturer and distributor to consumers. to bear in mind their responsibilities and work with the Government to make food as safe as possible?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that that is the right attitude. It is important to remember that the situation changes all the time. It is only just a year since the World Health Organisation said that listeria could be passed on in food and only more recently that we have been able to detect it by modern methods. People say that we must get rid of listeria in everything, but they do not realise that it occurs in everything. At what level can we accept a substance that is universally found?

It is not helpful for people such as the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) to talk about salmonella as though we were not now dealing with different strains. One strain can be transmitted through the ovaries, others are transmitted in ways that they could not be before. Others have a virulence and continuance that we have not seen before. To blame the Government is like blaming the 1914–18 Government for Spanish 'flu after the first world war.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

The Minister must be aware that I have continually raised the question of airline food over the past few months. Nothing in the report will deal specifically with that problem. A report by the three EHOs responsible for food safety at Heathrow said that a quarter of all airline food tested contained excessive levels of potentially dangerous bacteria, including salmonella and E coli, which is associated with faecal contamination. When I took the three EHOs to the Department of Health for a discussion with the Minister on that subject, there was a vast discrepancy between what they considered their powers to be and what the Department's advisers considered them to be.

Mr. Speaker

Briefly, please.

Mrs. Clwyd

A written reply from the Minister of Health said that the Government did not intend to take any action to improve the codes of practice until spring 1990. Is that not an incredibly long delay, given the potentially dangerous food poisoning time bomb that the EHOs and the Government are sitting on?

Mr. Gummer

I shall look into the details that the hon. Lady put to me. The legislation will ensure that food handling, whether in airports, the smallest village shops or anywhere else, is covered by the regulations. I am sure that she will be happy about that. It was not necessary to refer specifically to airline food. Most of us would hope to be as safe when eating food on a aeroplane as in a restaurant.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Does my righ hon. Friend accept that the report will be welcomed not only by consumers but by the farming community, which is anxious to ensure purity of food and the highest standard of hygiene on the farm, whether in the production of cheese, poultry or anything else. It will welcome the Government's steps towards that end. I know that my right hon. Friend is interested in additives. Will he ensure that considerably greater details on additives are given on labels than at present? That would be a help.

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend will be aware that I have an interest in the second point to which he referred, and I shall look into it further. I support what he said about the farmers and producers of food in this country. They are wholly behind any measures that are designed to ensure that the public have full confidence in their products. It cannot be to the advantage of producers for customers to feel that there may be some doubts about what they buy. Hence I regret a comment made by the shadow spokesman on health which suggested that somehow the Department was so tied to farmers that it would not be concerned with the health of consumers. The interests of both are absolutely identical.

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston)

Why does the White Paper claim that the Government gave a warning to pregnant women about listeria as soon as there was a scientific basis for doing do? They know perfectly well that their warning was issued as recently as February this year although a hazard warning was sent to environmental health officers as long ago as November 1987. Why were pregnant women not alerted then so that they could take steps to safeguard themselves and their infants? Why do the Government say that they will set limits on freezer cabinet temperatures when the problem lies with chill cabinets? And why do they not mention cook-chill in connection with retailing, although that occupies acres of space and millions of pounds' worth of investment? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept the Select Committee recommendations on listeria and listeriosis?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Lady will see from the response to the Select Committee—which will soon come to her and other hon. Members—exactly how the Government stand on that, and I will not try to prejudge it. The White Paper says what it says because it is true. We were the first Government in the world to give that warning, and I believe that we were the only Government so to do. The hon. Lady does herself less than justice by making such comments because in this case, as in many others, Britain has led the world in food safety.

Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West)

I give the White Paper a warm welcome, as will all responsible operators, be they producers or distributors of food. It demonstrates my right hon. Friend's willingness to address himself to contemporary problems. There is no doubt that the packaging, distribution and cooking of food has changed greatly in the last few years.

I took exception to the remarks of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) which suggested that all food would now be irradiated. Nothing could be further from the truth. Food safety is a shared responsibility. May we be assured that more information, and perhaps training, will be given not only to housewives but to cooks in how to handle frozen and chilled food when it reaches their kitchens?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that that is an important part of what we have to do.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

I wish to express severe disappointment with the Minister's statement and with the White Paper, which strikes me as superficial and not tackling the root of the problem. There is little in the Minister's comments about the producer, nothing about farms, factory farming and animal feeding, and little about food processing. Why do the Government continually blame the retailer, the housewife and the consumer for poor hygiene, when in truth the problem lies with production?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman cannot possibly have read the White Paper and then asked that question. The reason why the statements in the areas about which he spoke do not appear in the document in extenso is that most of them are fully covered by our present legislation. The hon. Gentleman should compare our legislation now with that of other countries. In general, we have the most comprehensive, up-to-date and efficient legislation. He may have noticed that in the first comments that I made as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food I emphasised that I saw it as a consumer Ministry.

Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)

My right hon. Friend's proposals will be widely welcomed by all who are not motivated by ignorance or political malice. Does he propose to seek consultative responses to his proposals and, if so, over what period will they be sought? Does he propose to deal with banning mineral hydrocarbons in food under the legislation that he outlined for a future Session of Parliament? Will the matters in annex 3 to the White Paper on diet and nutrition form part of legislative proposals in the Bill? If so, may we be told what they might be? Does he propose to introduce mandatory labelling of sugar, fat, salt and fibre in all food products?

Mr. Gummer

A number of the measures to which my hon. Friend refers are possible under our present legislation, and more will be possible under the extensions that will take place. We shall not be going in for further consultation. This is the result of four years of consultation and we must proceed to legislate as rapidly as parliamentary time can be found.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

This all seems to my hon. Friends and me to be an expensive PR exercise in dealing with the real problems of food handling, hygiene and safety. Where has the Minister been? People in south London are having to boil their drinking water, if they are lucky enough to have any. People in other parts of London are finding that there is so much pollution in the water—they can chew it. Half the country seems to have the runs; people cannot go swimming in the water-they can only go through the motions because so much raw sewage is being dumped in the sea.

All that is going on while the Minister presents this sort of document to us. There is nothing in it to say when a new Bill, or the various pieces of legislation to which reference has been made, will be brought before Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman talks about things happening when parliamentary time can be found. Will the Queen's Speech detail action to implement the proposals in the White Paper? What resources will be made available to hard-pressed local authorities in inner-city areas, particularly in London, including Newham, to enforce the new regulations? Unless we have new resources, this will remain a lot of airy-fairy pie in the sky, which is probably polluted as well.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman wonders where I have been. His description of Britain leads me to wonder where he has been.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the White Paper will be as welcome as has been his action, in the past and for the future, to deal with salmonella? In the course of the review to which he referred, will he review the arrangements for poultry flock inspections so that they will be more in the nature of a rapier than a bludgeon? In particular, will he ensure that under the emergency orders, analyses of samples are carried out quickly? Will he ensure that, for the sake of small producers, the costs of poultry inspection orders are kept as low as possible? Will he also see that the same, and certainly no lower, standards are applied to imported eggs as are applied to eggs produced in Britain to make sure that they are free from salmonella?

Mr. Gummer

I shall certainly see that there is equality of standards. I shall also make sure that, so far as is possible, the cost of enforcement is as low as is acceptable in line with the highest standards of safety, which must come first. I shall be looking again at the way in which we deal with the poultry sector because I am concerned that public confidence in poultry should continue, and that can happen only if we make sure that our inspections are properly conducted.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

While I welcome my right hon. Friend's positive approach, which will do much to reassure the public after recent alarmist publicity, may I ask him whether, after all the exchanges that we have heard today, there is actually any more food poisoning now than there was 20 years ago?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend must accept that there has been an increase in the incidence of food poisoning in some areas. Partly it has been a real increase, partly it has been because of new methods of detecting various kinds of microbiological activity, and partly it has been because the standard of living of many more people now enables them to buy all sorts of products. A much bigger variety of food is available. More and more people can now buy a much wider range of food, coming from many places and presented in different ways. However, many people do not follow the instructions or cook the food as it should be cooked. They often keep it at home in unsuitable conditions well after they have bought it. Those are the problems that we hope to tackle. We cannot hide that side of the matter and pretend that everything has to be done by the Government. Government and local authorities can do a great deal, but in the end consumers have to do a good deal themselves to make sure that they keep food properly.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the food industry in Britain is one of the most imaginative, innovative and hygienic in the world? Does he agree that the way in which Opposition Members are for ever trying to run down British industry—be it the food industry or the water industry—is appalling? Obviously I welcome the White Paper, but will my right hon. Friend reassure me that when the food Bill comes before Parliament it will not burden the food industry with too much red tape or over-regulation?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we have to have sufficient regulations to protect the interests of the consumer and of the food industry, because they have the same interest in people having confidence in the food that is produced and sold. However, my hon. Friend is right to remind the public outside that throughout this debate the Labour party has cast aspersions on British manufacturers, British workers, British firms and British farms, which are unworthy of them.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to make it clear to the country that many of the protestations of the Labour party form part of its not-so-hidden agenda as exemplified in early-clay motion 1151, which is signed by many Labour Members and calls in direct terms for effective state control of the food industry. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only reasonable inference that can be drawn from policy statements of that nature is that, if a Labour Government were ever returned, food companies in Banbury such as General Foods, Mattesons, Walls and Lesmay, and their work forces would come under state control?

Mr. Gummer

I would have much more confidence in the safety of firms, the future of which depends on the confidence of the public, in a free market than I would in the safety of food produced in bureaucratic kitchens.