HC Deb 14 June 1989 vol 154 cc913-8 3.49 pm
Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20 for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, the closure announced today of the institute of food research at Bristol, given the continuing rise of food poisoning to near epidemic proportions. This matter is specific because of the type of research which is conducted at the food laboratories in Bristol. It is important because of the public concern felt by consumers on matters of public health and dietary considerations. It is urgent because the closure was announced this morning at 11 am in Bristol. At the research laboratories in Bristol there are 80 projects— [interruption] I am sorry. This is an important issue, but it is difficult to concentrate on making my application because I cannot hear myself think for the din from the Conservative Benches.

The projects conducted at Langford in the Bristol food research institute cover listeria, and cook-chill proposals are being investigated. The institute carried out research on salmonella poisoning until that was cancelled and has, in the past, conducted research on botulism. The leading authority in that subject is based at the laboratory.

The institute covers work on food safety and quality. The fat content of food is vital in a society which suffers so much from heart disease. It researches food acceptability and food processing. It is important because of the increasing risk to health from microbial contamination, the emergence of new pathogenic organisms and because consumers prefer fresh foods, which means that the traditional methods of preserving foods cannot be used. Changes in people's dietary patterns means increased hazards associated with increased consumption of some foods. A reliable Government have a duty to ensure that we can consume safe food.

This is urgent, given the context of yet another problem related to food consumption in this country. There are 120 scientists who will lose their jobs by December 1990, and much of the research will not be transferred to other institutions. This is happening at a time when France and Spain are increasing their research and recognising that it is necessary for food safety and the decent health of the consuming public. Our Government are pursuing the trend of making the consumer less safe. The food industry cannot be trusted to ensure that the correct priorities are adopted.

The closure of this institution is foolhardy, callous and, given the current environment, cavalier. It shows scant regard for the best interests of the consumers. I hope that we shall be granted an emergency debate.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 20 for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that she thinks should have urgent consideration, namely, The closure announced today of the institute of food research at Bristol, given the continuing rise of food poisoning to near epidemic proportions. I have listened with care to what the hon. Lady has said. As she knows, my sole duty in considering an application under Standing Order No. 20 is to decide whether the matter should be given precedence over the business set down for today or tomorrow. I regret that the matter raised does not meet the criteria of Standing Order No. 20; therefore, I cannot submit her application to the House.

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yesterday, during the exchanges on botulism, I asked the Secretary of State for Health whether the Government would now reverse the cuts in research into food safety that threatened the Bristol laboratory. In his reply the Secretary of State asserted that the laboratory was doing no research of any kind relevant to botulism. This morning I received a letter from the Secretary of State admitting that that was clearly a mistake. I also learned that the Bristol laboratory was one of only two centres in Britain carrying out research into botulism, and that its modelling technique to predict the growth of the organism was relevant to all foodstuffs, not just meat.

In such circumstances, Mr. Speaker, would it not be normal for the Secretary of State to make a personal statement to put the record straight for Hansard? It is important that the record on the Bristol laboratory's work should be put straight, in view of this morning's announcement that the centre is to close and its work on botulism is to be dispersed to Reading, which will reduce the food research staff from 560 to 440. The House will want to know how the Government can justify the extraordinary timing of that decision.

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

It may be helpful if I share with the House the contents of the letter that I sent to the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), with an apology for the mistake that I made on the second occasion on which the subject was raised yesterday, which has caused some confusion.

The question of the research laboratory at Bristol was first raised by the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn). I answered his question accurately when I said: The point about the Bristol research centre to which the hon. Gentleman referred can be answered in more detail by my right hon. Friends with responsibility for that, but I am informed that that research centre is not concerned with any work on food safety relevant to this outbreak. To the best of my knowledge, that remains accurate.

The question was raised again later by the hon. Member for Livingston. When I reached the relevant part of my reply to him, I began to be interrupted by hon. Members who speak on agricultural matters—first by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and then, I have to say, by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, who was sitting behind me.

The hon. Member for Livingston has taken one phrase from what column 709 of Hansard makes it clear was an interrupted and incomplete answer. By the time the interruptions had finished, I had said: That must be taken up with the responsible Ministers. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will have to deal with that … I remain reasonably confident—I look to my right hon. Friend for advice"— which I was doing that it is doing no research of any kind relevant to botulism." — [Official Report, 13 June 1989; Vol. 154, c. 704–09.] I said in the letter to the hon. Members for Southport and for Livingston that that was plainly a mistake and that my answer had been incomplete. I had intended to say that the centre was doing no research relevant to this outbreak. Following the restructuring that has been taking place, and on the decision of the Agricultural and Food Research Council, an autonomous and independent body, work is being transferred from Bristol to Norwich and Reading, and the Bristol expert Terry Roberts is transferring to one of the other centres with his team.

As I made clear yesterday, the Government have no intention of withdrawing funding from the research on botulism, which is to be transferred to one of the institute's other laboratories. On the contrary, we are strengthening and expanding the work on food safety that has hitherto been done at Bristol.

I can only say that I hope that what I have said has cleared up the confusion. Obviously I speak on behalf of the Government, although this is not my departmental responsibility. However, hon. Members who feel strongly that the work would be better done at Bristol than at Norwich or Reading should address their detailed questions either to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science or to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. We are increasing the amount of research being done, and I leave the matter of the location to those who wish to explore the matter further.

Several Hon. Members

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I will take a point of order from the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn), as he was involved in this matter yesterday.

Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Further to that point of order. The Secretary of State has sent me a letter, for which I thank him. Can he confirm unreservedly that no research or experiments are now being carried out at Bristol on the present outbreak of botulism?

Mr. Clarke

A great number of inquiries are being made about the outbreak. If they throw up the need for further research into how hazelnut puree became infected, I have no doubt that that research will be financed. The decision about Bristol has been taken by the relevant research council. It has decided to transfer the work from Bristol to Norwich or Reading. There will be increased expenditure on some aspects of food safety research. The work on botulism is being transferred. A great expert on botulism, who is based at Bristol, is moving with his team to one of the other two centres. That team will wish to consider the impact on its work of the outbreak that we are suffering at the moment, which I trust will soon be abated.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

A different point of order?

Mr. Cryer

Yes, a different point of order, Mr. Speaker. It relates to statements made to the House.

The Government are clearly intent on curtailing statements. Today, we have had three instances. The statement on the Foreign Affairs Council was based on an extension of Question Time. Consequently, according to the general rules, you were unable to call the whole range of hon. Members who wished to speak. On a statement, that would have been quite normal. The exchange, therefore, was very limited.

The question that has been raised now—which was raised yesterday by means of a private notice question and today by means of a Standing Order No. 20 application —has been answered in what can only be described as a very shifty way by the Minister. He ought to have come here and made a statement in order to allow a wide range of cross-examination. You may recall, Mr. Speaker, that all the annunciators in this House carry a message that there is to be a statement by a Minister. Many hon. Members who may not be here would have wished to be here to ask questions. It is a real denial of Members' rights to treat the House in this way.

All that I seek from you, Mr. Speaker, is an assurance that you will keep the matter under review. There is a very real danger that, with their enormous majority of over 100, the Government are treating the processes of democracy with contempt and eroding the conventions of this place, which call for statements at regular intervals from Ministers so that hon. Members can have a proper opportunity—without placing a strain on you, Mr. Speaker, to curtail questions—to cross-examine Ministers, particularly when they are behaving so badly and when their methods of operation are so shoddy.

Ms. Primarolo


Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)


Mr. Speaker

Let me deal with one point of order at a time. I do not think that the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) is right about what he called the statement on Question 18. It was a question from one of his hon. Friends, which might well have been reached. The fact that it was taken at the end of questions gave the House a greater opportunity to discuss it. That is a helpful procedure when matters of great importance arise. As to the hon. Gentleman's other point, the Secretary of State has today corrected some information that he gave to the House yesterday. I think that the whole House should applaud that.

Mr. Madden

May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker, as the guardian of the rights of hon. Members? It relates to statements. It is rumoured that tomorrow the Government intend to make a statement about the establishment of a DNA testing scheme. We have been waiting many months for the statement. It is likely to be extremely controversial, because it will dash the hopes of many families who wish to be united and reunited in this country.

I know that this is not a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, but as many hon. Members from all sides of the House will be preoccupied elsewhere tomorrow, I think that it would be quite wrong for the Government to try to slip through a very controversial statement in a House with a very slim attendance. If you are approached by the Government about the matter, could you strongly advise them to hold this statement, which has been on ice for at least nine months, until Monday, so that they can be held accountable on Monday for decisions which they are trying to slip through the House when many hon. Members will be away?

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you confirm that tomorrow is a normal sitting day for the House of Commons and that it is therefore the right of all hon. Members to attend and to put any questions that they may wish on any statement that is made? If the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) is skiving off and will not be here to speak up for his constituents, that is a problem for him, not for the Government.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I shall deal with one matter at a time. I have no knowledge of the rumours that go around this place. As we approach July, they always seem to accelerate. I do not know anything about that matter. Friday is sometimes said to be a thin day in the House; Thursday usually is a busy day.

Ms. Primarolo

Further to my original point of order arising out of the Minister's comments, Mr. Speaker. I believe that the Minister's statement that all the work from Bristol will be transferred to Norwich or Reading is incorrect. I ask him to take hack that statement and reconsider it, to save him having to apologise to the House tomorrow and put the record straight, yet again.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. With great respect, in using points of order, hon. Members are trying to question me about a press notice issued yesterday by the Agricultural and Food Research Council—a body for which I am not responsible, as hon. Members know. In case the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) is in any doubt, I have said, on the advice of those who are responsible for this matter, that the Government have no intention of withdrawing funding from the research on botulism which is being transferred to the institute's other laboratories. Today, the Agricultural and Food Research Council said: more will be spent on research into Salmonella and Listeria". I advise hon. Members, in their interests as well as mine, that if they are seriously interested in questions concerning the laboratory and transfer of work from Bristol to Norwich or Reading, they should direct them to one or other of the Secretaries of State responsible for this matter. All they need do is table a question to whichever Secretary of State they wish.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the Secretary of State has acknowledged, there are Ministers who are responsible for the statement which was issued today about the closure of the institute of food research at Bristol. As he said, it is to them that we should address our questions. Given the uncertainty and interest in the House—which is obvious to everyone—because 120 top scientists will lose their jobs, I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to use your good offices to ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to come to the House later this evening so that we can cross-examine him on this important issue which affects public health and food safety.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a matter for me, but I am sure that the point has been heard.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)


Mr. Speaker

Final point of order, please.

Mr. Cook

Further to the original point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am afraid that the Secretary of State appears to have heaped confusion upon ignorance. We are now in some difficulty in determining who should answer our questions. In his statement yesterday, the Secretary of State for Health said that the incidence of botulism in this country was significantly less than in other countries. His colleague, however, is issuing statements saying that the food irradiation which occurs in other countries desirable, so we should adopt it here.

I want the Secretary of State—whichever one is responsible—to bear in mind the fact that clostridium botulinum is not susceptible to irradiation, but that other bacteria—yeasts and moulds—are, and Ministers should know that the bacterium can grow much more virulently without competitors. The Secretary of State for Health should ensure that either he covers this matter or his mate does.

Mr. Speaker

I am sure that that has been heard by those who are responsible.