Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a supplementary sum, not exceeding £1,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges which will come in course of payment during the year ending on 3Ist March 1989 for expenditure by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on market support, grants and loans for capital and other improvements, support for agriculture in special areas and compensation to sheep producers, animal health, arterial drainage, flood and coast protection, and certain other services.—[Mr. Sackville.]
§ Mr. Speaker
I remind the House that today's debate on class IV, vote 3 of the Estimates is limited to the subject of assistance to the egg industry, in accordance with the recommendation of the Liaison Committee, whose report was agreed to by the House on 28 February.
§ Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
It is a rare privilege for the Chairman of a Select Committee to be able to introduce a report for debate on the Floor of the House; to be able to do so within a week of its publication must be almost unique. I fully appreciate that this subject has received more than its fair share of attention in recent weeks, for reasons that the House well understands, and not unrelated to the fact that in the course of the last three weeks at least one Supply day has been devoted to similar issues. Nevertheless, by the nature of things, the press can, and does give only a modest amount of space to our findings.
I hope that those who have read the report in full will appreciate the comprehensive way in which we have sought to cover this limited subject. We have deliberately confined our study to salmonella in eggs, even though many witnesses sought to divert us to the wider territory not only of salmonella in poultry generally but of the whole question of food safety.
Because of the nature of the emergency, the widespread concern expressed in the media, and the catastrophic effect on the industry, we felt that it was extremely urgent to produce our report, together with the evidence that went towards it, as soon as possible. We claim no records, but I doubt whether many Select Committee reports of the substance of this one have been produced in such a short time. Indeed, had it not been for the delay occasioned by the illness of a key witness, we might have been able to report even earlier. We had to invite evidence from all interested parties and leave them a reasonable reply period, which, incidentally, overran the Christmas holiday.
With a number of members of the Committee serving on Standing Committees, and some representing constituencies in regions as far away as Northern Ireland and Scotland, it was really practical for us to meet only on Wednesdays. Although this allows proper consideration of 773 the written evidence in preparation for oral sessions, it may seem from the outside somewhat dilatory. Nevertheless, once we had completed our oral sessions we were able to consider the draft report in the course of the next two weeks, and we finally published on 1 March, only one day behind our original estimate of the end of February.
I must pay tribute to the Clerk, Mr. David Robson, and his staff in the Select Committee office—actually, only two assistants and one hard-pressed secretary—who have to deal not only with the study in hand but with the other peripheral business, which is quite extensive.
Conscious of the fact that in this whole matter there was a considerable element of scientific evidence, we appointed as our special advisers Dr. Michael Whitehead, formerly head of the public health laboratory service, and Mr. Don Haxby, a former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. We could not have asked for, or received, greater help than we were given by those two gentlemen. I am delighted to learn that Dr. Whitehead will be advising another Select Committee in the near future—with a glowing reference from ourselves.
Naturally, I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food cannot be with us today, but I fully understand the extreme importance of his presence in Brussels, where he is negotiating the price review. Sad as his absence from this House may be, I have to say that in the national interest his presence there is probably more important. I am certain that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who occupies a most important position in the Government, will be an excellent substitute. I know that his day-to-day work on this matter has been extensive, and we could not ask for better guidance from the Front Bench.
I appreciate that the Government will wish, at a future time, to respond in full detail to our conclusions and recommendations. However, I hope that the Minister, when he intervenes, will be able to give a clear indication of the Government's initial reaction to our report, particularly as many of our recommendations are already in train. Indeed, the Ministry of Agriculture has been claiming that no fewer than 17 measures have been introduced to help to remedy this difficult problem. While it is quite clear that many of those were in preparation before 3 December, the Ministry, too, must have been listening to the evidence that we received, and to the tone of our questions, to have responded in such an across-the-board manner and so promptly. I hope also that the Government will see the time scale for their response as being rather shorter than the normal three months, in view of the widespread public concern about this matter, as well as the very special efforts that my Committee has made to produce its report as soon as possible.
Predictably enough, the press has described the report in various ways, but most of the newspapers have concentrated on those to whom we ascribe blame. I hope that those who have read the report in its entirety will recognise that it is much more balanced than that. Generally, it acknowledges that the Government are on the right track in the way in which they are trying to control salmonella, but it has to be said that some of the measures have been taken too slowly—a criticism that we have set out in detail.
774 If our report has put the Government under the spotlight, I believe that today's debate puts Select Committees as a whole very much in the same glare. It is obvious, to me at least, that the public, and even journalists, who should know better, are still not clear as. to how Select Committees should operate and what resources and information are open to them.
As I see it, it is our role to monitor past decisions of the Government, particularly those involving public money. This is a natural extension of the right of the House in relation to the Government of the day. There are some, of course, who see us in the same light as Select Committees of the United States Congress. Those people fail to observe the very substantial difference, which is simply that Ministers in the United States Administration are not members of the elected Houses and cannot answer questions there. The American Select Committees, therefore, provide a connection and an arm of Government that are neither necessary not desirable in this country.
One journalist, who commented that we as a Select Committee should have been better informed about this affair during last summer, fails to recognise that at no time does a Select Committee have privileged access to Government decisions or papers or to ministerial decisions—nor do I believe that it should. We are a post-mortem body, the pathologists of Parliament, if I may put it that way. It is up to us to judge what has taken place in the past and to cast our judgment where we will. On top of that, it is not unreasonable to say that, having made a criticism, it is only right and positive to make suggestions as to what should be done by way of correction. I hope that the House will find that in our report we have tried to adopt that principle.
This is a classic case of a Minister sparking off an incident encompassing not only the mass media but a large and important industry, as well as touching that most sensitive nerve—the health of the general public. The Government sought to respond, yet even the most partisan observer must acknowledge that the matter had reached a stage of substantial national interest in a very short time. Government money of a potentially serious order was involved; two Government Departments had direct responsibility; the egg producers and the food industry were thoroughly alarmed; and individual members of the public were left bemused, confused, and frightened. The matter was directly the responsibility of the Agriculture Select Committee, and the announcement that we proposed to investigate the matter was greeted with considerable relief by all the interested parties—anyhow, those outside the Government—who recognised that we provided a forum in which the matter could be considered reasonably, with all the information available.
I do not pretend that our report is definitive. No doubt there are questions that we failed to ask, and answers that we misinterpreted. However, the report was the product of a careful examination of the issues in which party politics played little or no part. Commentators are sometimes surprised that committees of politicians with very different views can reach unanimous conclusions. I do not share this scepticism. In the case of this Select Committee, and this report, the conclusions are based on the evidence. The more evidence we heard, the more certain we became of some of our conclusions. We received a comprehensive and widespread selection of written evidence, and further questioned a number of key witnesses.
775 Until now, unofficial comments from the Government have been somewhat limited, although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has said that he intends to take parts of the report seriously. It is interesting to observe the reactions of interested parties, all of whom, so far, have concluded that it is an excellent report, except the part that criticises them. I must repeat that the whole report was considered with the greatest care by the Committee and its final version was unanimously accepted.
I have been concerned by the innuendo that there should be some bias in the report, simply because there happens to be a majority of one Conservative in the composition of the Committee. My hon. Friends and I are not noted for our hostility to the Government—quite the reverse—so I ask Ministers, even if they are not in agreement with our findings, to acknowledge the integrity of the evidence-gathering and evidence-sifting that we have been through.
In that context, I noted the remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who described our reaction to his part in the matter as "ridiculous". Anyone who has been in active politics for any time occasionally gets it wrong or is misquoted in the press. We all know the immense difficulty that retraction or correction presents and, even with the wisdom of hindsight, I acknowledge the problem. What is clear, however, is that the reaction of the Government at the time did not produce the desired result. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will ponder that section of the report as carefully as any other.
Interested as the press may be in the safety or otherwise of eggs, we all have no illusions as to why our investigation attracted such intense attention from the press. It was a matter of great relief to me when my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) agreed to attend a hearing of the Committee. Whether the public believes our report or not, we would have seriously lacked credibility if we had not been able to question her in person. While she maintained that there was little that she could add to the total sum of our knowledge—and her evidence did little to dispel that—she certainly corroborated our impression of events leading from her statement on 3 December, and for that alone her presence was merited.
Many hon. Members took the view at the time that there was a substantial constitutional point at stake. If an hon. Member who had herself been a member of a Select Committee in the past, and a former member of a Government committed to assisting Select Committees, were to refuse to appear before us, how much harder would it be for Select Committees which wished to compel reluctant strangers to attend. The House absolutely insists on its right to question Ministers, and I do not believe it would be well understood by anyone inside or outside the House if former Ministers were to rely on some claim of privilege that precluded them from examination, particularly when the matters concerned referred to their time as office holders. However, there is no sanction on anyone who refuses to answer questions, although the Committee is entitled to draw its own conclusion from such reluctance.
776 I recall describing the experience of resigning from office as being "extremely hurtful". I am sure that my hon. Friend has suffered considerably. I am personally grateful to her for avoiding a constitutional dilemma for the House, and for her kind words to me personally, which I appreciated.
Now that the Committee has produced its report, which I hope deals with the important issues involved in the affair, I would not seek to bore the House by going over it again paragraph by paragraph. Nevertheless, it is certain that the newspapers' obsession with criticism obscured the far more important issues of establishing an answer to some of the questions that were being asked. Therefore, by way of a summary, we set out what we believed were the six most important questions and our answers to them, extracted from the main body of the report.
Clearly, the point to which we wish to give most emphasis concerns the safety of eggs. It was our very firm conclusion that normally healthy people should feel no cause for concern. I will read to the House the answer to our question, "How safe are eggs?" We said:The risks to individual consumers cannot be quantified exactly, but given that the likelihood of an egg being infected with salmonella is very small, and the likelihood of the infection not being destroyed by cooking is even smaller, normally healthy people should feel no cause for concern. Those who consume uncooked eggs or uncooked egg dishes should be aware that these carry a slight risk. Care should be taken to cook eggs thoroughly for vulnerable groups, in line with the Chief Medical Officer's advice.I hope that that will give comfort to the many millions who every day eat eggs and who look upon them as a cheap, reasonable and safe food, and will also put the market back where it belongs in due course.
I should like to say a word about the role which some television programmes played. Ever ready to pour petrol on the flames, they sought and found two individuals who were ready to spread alarm and despondency with selected facts and figures. The opportunity that was presented to Dr. Lang, a social psychologist who runs the London Food Commission, was not lost on him. Television could scarcely complete a programme on the subject without his gloomy tidings and instructions on hygiene. His business is propaganda. If I say that his organisation was originally funded by the Greater London council when it was led by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), I do not think I need say more.
Professor Lacey, whose credentials as professor of microbiology at Leeds university are substantially more relevant, was able with almost theatrical statements to use his position and knowledge to considerable effect, again owing to the endless exposure which his woeful tale obtained, particularly on television. It would be too much to expect that any balanced view should be broadcast, but I wonder how widespread the distress caused by these two gentlemen must have been among the less well informed members of the public, to say nothing of the many thousands of egg producers and others who lost substantial sums of money as a result of the crisis.
The news that bits of dead chicken were being fed to chickens drew pictures of appalling cannibalism that clearly revolved everyone. We examined the matter in detail and found that no less than 1.25 million tonnes of animal products every year are ground, boiled, dried and processed to provide a highly nutritious form of animal protein, very little of which is used in laying rations. While it is true that it can be infected with salmonella, there is no 777 evidence that that was the cause of any outbreaks, nor indeed would any ordinary person be particularly repelled by the substance, which is simply a brown coloured powder, except possibly by its rather rich smell.
I hope to be able to claim that my Committee has enhanced the reputation of Select Committees, has produced a balanced report which contains positive suggestions for improvement that will be informative to the House and the general public, and will uphold the principle that the House will be vigilant and, if necessary, critical of the Government in the interests of the welfare of all the people.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder)
As my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr.Wiggin) has already said, my right hon. Friend the Minister is in Brussels taking part in crucial negotiations and has asked me to apologise for his absence from the debate. I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend's balanced speech and I express personal admiration for the clear, fluent style used by the authors of his Committee's report. We should also recognise that the Committee worked against deadlines with great speed.
I stress that my speech today is not the Government's official response to the Select Committee report. That will come soon, once we have absorbed the report's interpretation of events and completed our analysis of those recommendations not already executed or known publicly to be in the pipeline. The 17 measures which the Government have already announced to tackle salmonella cover many of the Committee's recommendations. Indeed, as my hon. Friend knows, 15 of the 17 measures had been decided on and disclosed to the Committee before its hearings began.
Soon after my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare decided to inquire into the new and growing problem of salmonella in eggs, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food submitted a joint memorandum to his Committee. That was, and remains, a key document because it sets out at length and in detail the international nature and prevalence of salmonella enteritidis phage type 4 and the action being taken by the British Government to combat it. Paragraph 16 of the submission says:There is no other zoonosis as complex in its epidemiology and control as salmonellosis. Epidemiological patterns differ greatly between geographical areas depending on climate, population density, land use, farming practices, food harvesting and processing technologies, and consumer habits. Moreover, the biology of salmonella serovars differs so widely that discussions on salmonellosis, salmonella infections or salmonella contamination are inevitably complex.Those words were not written by a Minister or Government official—they were plucked as a direct quotation from the World Health Organisation's 1988 expert committee report. So if anyone here or outside still contends that this complex issue can be tackled by sloganising or simple solutions based on magic potions they should cast aside their misleading thoughts and concentrate on the facts so starkly highlighted by the World Health Organisation.
Definitive identification of affected flocks can be achieved only by isolation of the organisms in laboratories. There is no rapid, simple blood test anywhere in the world to identify live birds with salmonella 778 enteritidis phage type 4. Consequently, there can be no guarantees that a flock is free from salmonella. Salmonella organisms are present and persistent all around us in the environment and there is no sound method of eliminating them from laying houses. The Government's chief veterinary officer has always argued that even a wholesale slaughter policy, followed by thorough cleansing and disinfecting of sheds, would not guarantee that subsequent flocks would be salmonella free. The Select Committee acknowledged in paragraph 30 thatexperts agree that salmonellas are impossible to eradicate altogether. They are ubiquitous organisms: reservoirs of infection exist in all birds and animals, and in humans.
§ Mr. Martyn Jones (Clywd, South-West)
What the Minister is saying is, of course, true for all salmonella species, but it must surely be possible to eliminate one particular type—for example, salmonella enteritidis phage type 4, which was the one that the Committee mainly considered—as, indeed, salmonella gallinorum and pullorum have been eliminated from flocks because they are pathogenic to chickens.
§ Mr. Ryder
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman's scientific knowledge and background, but no country has found the answer to that form of salmonella. If such an answer existed, clearly it would be deployed. There have been ways of detecting other forms of salmonella, but not enteritidis phage type 4. As soon as an answer is found anywhere in the world, the hon. Gentleman can be certain that the British Government will be the first to deploy it in chicken houses.
§ Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
Following my hon. Friend's response to the intervention of the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), does he agree that other salmonellae are also capable of causing food poisoning in humans? Even if we eliminate enteritidis phage type 4—as we hope in due course to do—we shall still need the general vigilance and the precautions set out in our report to reduce to a minimum the risk of food poisoning.
§ Mr. Ryder
My hon. Friend is right. There are nearly 2,000 different forms of salmonella. Indeed, salmonella typhimurium—the form of salmonella which affected the House of Lords last year—is in many ways even more serious than salmonella enteritidis phage type 4. Moreover, far from being unique to Britain, reservoirs also exist in countries such as the United States, France, Eire, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, and some reported cases of salmonella in Britain have been from people laid low immediately after returning from business or holiday trips abroad.
As soon as the Government received confirmation last summer from doctors, scientists and vets of a serious problem linking food poisoning in humans and salmonella enteritidis phage type 4 in eggs, action was taken. An immediate and intensive review was carried out by doctors, scientists and vets. Joint meetings were held between the Department of Health, the public health laboratory service, the Ministry and representatives of the egg industry. The joint working party on salmonella and eggs drew up a report on specific areas where research was required. That report was made available to the House in January. The short-term research that it recommended was commissioned as soon as the working group identified the needs. We did not wait for the report to be finalised. 779 Other committees were established at official level, and work was accelerated in order to forward firm recommendations to Ministers.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
The report states that in February last year the Hull medical officer of health advised hospitals in his area not to give under-boiled or raw eggs to patients, but it was not until July that the Government conveyed that recommendation to the National Health Service generally.
§ Mr. Ryder
The doctors, scientists and vets who advised the Government did not have conclusive confirmation until last summer that there was a serious problem linking food poisoning in humans and salmonella enteritidis phage type 4.
My right hon. Friend the Minister informed the Select Committee in his own evidence that Ministers received recommendations from officials in November. He stressed that we not only decided to act on them straight away but that we decided at once to go further by introducing extra measures which included giving statutory effect to significant sections of the codes of practice. In parallel with those decisions, I met representatives of the industry to repeat to them that Ministers took the problem of salmonella very seriously and that we looked to the industry to do so as well. We also urged it, as a matter of urgency, to carry out the action in the codes of practice. I explained to the industry that the safety of the food chain was paramount—one outbreak of salmonella was one too many—and that public confidence in the industry would dissolve unless it was seen to be acting at the same time as the Government began announcing their comprehensive package of measures.
There is a postcript to the story of my meeting with the industry. Last Wednesday evening, after publication of the Select Committee report, I watched the BBC's 6 o'clock news. I saw Keith Pulman of the United Kingdom Egg Producers Association interviewed by Clive Ferguson. Mr. Pulman said:The egg producers were not told about it"—that is, evidence of salmonella in eggs—until 19th December".That is very rum, because Keith Pulman had written in an article in the "United Kingdom Egg Producers Association News" thatThe Ministry of Health announcement on Friday, 26 August advising the public to avoid eating raw eggs was made after full consultation with the industry".That article was dated 2 September. All I can say is that Mr. Pulman either has a capricious memory or is a victim of impersonation. The Government decisions and meetings to which I have referred all occurred before the ITN interview of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) on 3 December.
The Select Committee has rejected the charge that our package of measures would not have been planned, let alone implemented, but for the events of early December. We assert that those 17 measures amount to the most comprehensive package drawn up anywhere in the world to combat salmonella. Action has been taken at every point in the chain from imported feedingstuffs through to breeding and laying flocks. As the House knows, the egg market collapsed towards the end of last year. The 780 Government reluctantly decided that emergency measures were needed to stabilise the industry in such unprecedented circumstances.
The measures taken are the subject of the motion before the House today. The Select Committee concluded that my right hon. Friend the Minister deserved credit for putting together a skilfully constructed package. It was designed to restore stability to a disrupted market in which sales had fallen to around half normal levels. Hens, unlike men and machines, are not responsive to market forces in emergency conditions. They continue to lay eggs and require feeding even if demand for their product plummets—and, of course, feed is by far the major cost of egg production. As a result of the sudden and dramatic slump in demand, millions of eggs piled up at packing stations and many innocent producers, especially small ones, faced bankruptcy. Moreover, there was a real risk that a major part of the industry's productive capacity would be destroyed so that when demand recovered we would have had to rely on imports to meet it. That would not have been in the interests of British producers or consumers.
The Government therefore introduced two short-term schemes. The purpose of the egg scheme was to restore stability to the market by enabling packers to dispose of the accumulating surplus of eggs. The Government offered payments for eggs destroyed under Government supervision. Although the scheme was only at a safety-net level of 30p per dozen, broadly equivalent to the cost of feed, this rapidly put a floor in the market.
The complementary scheme, for the slaughter of hens, was designed to enable egg producers to cull younger birds in order to adjust production to the lower level of demand which might prevail for some time ahead. Again, payments were offered only at a modest safety-net level of £1.50 per bird, but this at least provided a way out for those producers who considered it prudent to plan for a lower level of output over the ensuing six to 12 months.
In the event, as the Select Committee report states, the packagewas designed to put a bottom in the market and did just that".My right hon. Friend the Minister was determined that there should be no half measures. If calm was to be restored to a disturbed market any intervention measures had to be on a bold enough scale to meet the maximum demands that could reasonably be placed upon them. That is why he deliberately provided for expenditure of up to a maximum of £19 million on the two schemes. The real key to the cost-effectiveness of the schemes, however, was not that figure but the levels of payment offered and the nature of the mechanism adopted. As soon as the scheme had succeeded in raising the market above the safety-net level of 30p per dozen eggs, this automatically removed the attraction of destruction.
I welcome the Select Committee's conclusion that the package was necessary and I am grateful for the complimentary remarks made about it. In the event, the schemes not only achieved their objectives but did so at minimal cost to the taxpayer precisely because of the way in which they were designed by my right hon. Friend the Minister.
Nevertheless, I do not wish to leave the House with the impression that those two short-term emergency measures have fully restored the market or resolved the severe economic problems of the industry. Egg sales are still only some 75–80 per cent. of normal and prices to producers, 781 though above the rock-bottom levels reached at one stage, are far from remunerative. A full return to normality depends on a full restoration of consumer confidence. I welcome the rising interest in consumer issues, which mirrors my own longstanding political beliefs. Power wielded by interest groups—trade unionists, lawyers, bureaucrats and producers of any description—should be fragmented or balanced by watchful Governments if they exceed the size of their boots. The president of the National Farmers' Union knows full well that my right hon. Friend the Minister and I are not his producers' poodles, but that appraisal may not yet have reached every out-station of the food and farming industry.
Consumer sovereignty is the key to the market place. It can be threatened by monopoly and cartels, trade protectionism masquerading as protection, or neglect of public health standards. The eagle eye of Government must always fall on such threats to consumers, however powerful, influential and persuasive they may be. The rights of consumers must be safeguarded by Government in any democracy where entrenched interests, public or private, can ignore the national good. Producers must adhere to them, and, in fairness, the vast majority of Britain's food industry realises their crucial significance. After all, no industry depends more upon repeat purchasing than does the food industry. To the few whose recklessness undermines the reputation of the many by putting public health at risk, however, my message is clear; clean up your act or face the full brunt of the law; and where the law falls short it is being strengthened.
In listening to, and acting on, legitimate consumer anxieties we must never be bamboozled by know-alls and busybodies dispensing flimsy advice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare has already stressed, we should also beware of a few so-called independent experts. During the past few weeks, some people with political axes to grind have implied that the entire food chain in this country is part of a capitalist conspiracy designed to undermine public health. They merit our derision, they warrant our scorn and they deserve our anger.
Some romantics see all new developments in food science as potentially evil and want a return to a 19th century Utopia, but in reality the 19th century posed far greater hazards to health. Diets were restricted—and besides, Utopia never existed. Confidence in the safety of food is the Government's overriding concern. That is why we are taking so many measures to remove the risk of infection in eggs, even though this is recognised by the Committee to be very small. We have launched a campaign more rigorous and more comprehensive than has been launched anywhere else in the world to ensure the maximum possible degree of safety at every point in the chain from chicken breeder to chicken table. Twenty-seven years ago almost to the day President Kennedy sent a message to Congress that consumers should enjoy a right to safety, a right to be heard, a right to be informed and a right to choose. These rights are being and will continue to be safeguarded by this Conservative Government.
§ Dr. David Clark (South Shields)
First, I congratulate the Select Committee on a truly excellent report on salmonella in eggs. I also wish to commend the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) for 782 delivering his report to the House in a very lucid manner. In a sense, his speech today was reflected in the report of the Select Committee, because we saw the same lucidity in that. I congratulate him and the members of the Committee on producing this report so speedily. The Committees of the House have gained a fine reputation for producing reports which are clear and are understood by the ordinary person in the street. This is no exception and the members deserve tremendous credit for producing such a thorough, speedy and forthright report. Apart from the cursory, yet fundamental, criticism of the former Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), they identified the villains of the piece—quite rightly—as the Government. I sincerely hope that the Government will heed the recommendations and the criticisms of the Select Committee.
The Government have completely mishandled the whole affair by their incompetence, excessive secrecy and delaying tactics. By their failure to act speedily they have allowed the problem to become exacerbated and as a result have put public health at risk. Since they were caught out, we have seen a flurry of Government activity in this sphere. Ministers, and the Minister today, repeatedly brag—that is the appropriate word—about the 17 measures that they have taken to control salmonella in poultry since December 1988. That begs the question of why they did not act sooner, because they have certainly been aware of the problem for months, possibly for years.
However, even the 17 formative measures leave much to be desired because, as the Minister told me in a parliamentary answer on 3 March, only two of the 17 measures have the backing of legislation and a further five are merely voluntary codes of conduct.
As the Minister knows and has acknowledged, none of the new changes needs primary legislation. Why, over the past few months, have the Government not come to the House and asked for legislation?
§ Mr. Ryder
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I do not wish to delay the progress of the debate. However, later, with the permission of the House, I shall answer the charge that the Government have not introduced the measures. We have introduced them. They are being introduced and are proving successful.
§ Mr. Ryder
I do not wish to delay the House on this point, but I must put the hon. Gentleman straight. We have doubled the rate of inspections on protein processing plants since December, introduced stop provisions to prevent contaminated material entering the feedstuffs chain and served notice on a plant. We have imposed even more rigorous controls on the importation of animal protein, imposed restrictions on the sale of eggs for human consumption and served notices for the compulsory cleansing and disinfection of premises. I could continue.
§ Dr. Clark
The Minister could not continue and that is the point. He has given five out of the 17 measures. As he is going to reply, let me remind the Minister about the 783 third initiative which he mentioned. He said he will require protein processors to take samples from each day's production and notify MAFF, but the Government are still required to bring an order before the House before they can effect that measure.
The sixth initiative provides for the compulsory bacteriologist monitoring of all poultry-laying flocks. Under section 1 of the Animal Health Act 1981, that still needs to be ratified by the House. The seventh initiative requires the registration of breeding and laying flocks and the monitoring of hatcheries. It, too, awaits ratification under section I of the Animal Health Act.
The tenth initiative relates to the tightening up of hygienic handling of eggs, and is inoperative while we await new statutory action. The eleventh initiative tightens up the controls on rodents and is inoperative for the same reason.
The Minister could not have continued. He may be proposing to take action, but he has not yet taken it, which is the key point. The Minister should not mislead the House—and certainly not the nation—by saying that he already has such powers. He has not. He merely intends to take them.
§ Dr. Clark
I shall be happy to give way to the Minister but it would perhaps be better if he waited until I have finished speaking and sought an opportunity to catch Mr. Speaker's eye.
There is no excuse for not bringing forward the necessary statutory instruments. Labour Members and, I am sure, Members of the Liberal and other minority parties would agree that we would facilitate the passage through the House of any Bill which protected public health. We have repeated to the Government—and I repeat today—that they have no excuse for not introducing such legislation.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)
Is not the hon. Gentleman judging Government action in the light of what he now knows? At the time, what evidence did the Government or the hon. Gentleman have that would have led him to take the sort of action that the Government took last year? When should that action have been taken—many months ago or some years ago? Frankly, the evidence did not exist.
§ Dr. Clark
The hon. Gentleman intervenes in most of these debates, which is helpful to me because it gives me the opportunity to develop my arguments, and I shall certainly consider the detailed points that he made. I was simply replying to assertions repeatedly made by Ministers, and by the Minister this afternoon, that, since December 1988, the Government have introduced 17 measures. Those measures have not been introduced. The Government intend to introduce them and any leglislation in the form of statutory instruments will certainly be supported by the Opposition. [Interruption.] The Minister disagrees, but I warn him that the Government are responsible to the House and the Minister does not rule by edict. Statutory powers are laid down and the Minister knows that he must bring regulations to the House.
I shall now deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith). The 784 Opposition's argument centres on the Government's slowness and delay in handling the food issue. Perhaps one of the most disgraceful factors was the Minister's failure to tackle the problem of salmonella food poisoning earlier—about which the hon. Member for Wealden asked.
Apparently, the Select Committee supports my view that if the Government had acted when they originally discovered the signs, they would not have found themselves in the ridiculous mess which followed the former Under-Secretary of State's comments last December. Also, they would have saved the taxpayer £3 million. I refer the hon. Member for Wealden to the conclusions of the Select Committee, which support the thrust of my argument.
What signs and evidence are there of salmonella poisoning? The report shows that evidence had been accruing since 1982, and that salmonella enteritidis—not just salmonella—had been increasing and had become a serious health problem. In July 1985 the Government's food safety research consultative committee reported some revealing points, which I shall quote in answer to the hon. Member for Wealden. Its report stated:In 1983 more than 17,000 cases of bacterial food poisoning were reported in the United Kingdom. More than 80% of these involved Salmonella…The United Kingdom faces a serious and apparently deteriorating situation in regard to microbial food poisoning …This subject is highly-research sensitive.
§ Mr. Boswell
The hon. Gentleman quoted from the report that 80 per cent. of cases were related to salmonella. What proportion of that 80 per cent. was related to salmonella enteritidis, and what further proportion was related to salmonella enteritidis phage 4? It would be useful to have those figures.
The hon. Gentleman is usually so well informed that I am amazed that he asked that question. The minutes of evidence given to the Select Committee on which he served contain the answer on the first page:The isolation of one serotype, salmonella enteritidis,has increased almost 13-fold between 1981 and October 1988".I need not continue. I wish that the hon. Gentleman had studied the report before he deigned to intervene. That was our of character. He appears to have missed a vital piece of evidence.
We have evidence that the Government knew there was a problem as far back as 1982. It is interesting to note that the Department of Health was aware of the possible connection with eggs as far back as November 1987. For confirmation of that, I refer hon. Members to page 171 of the evidence.
Next, we discover that the Minister became clearer about the risk of eggs in May 1988. A month later, on 13 June, the DHSS called a meeting which included representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and, interestingly enough, representatives from the industry. I say "interestingly enough" because of the strictures that the Minister directed at those representatives this afternoon.
The House will recall that the purpose of the meeting washow to inform the NHS that recent outbreaks of salmonella food poisoning at two hospitals appeared to have been caused by raw eggs".True to form, the Ministry of Agriculture and the industry decided once again to play down the matter. It was not until 29 July that hospitals were informed of the problem. 785 Even worse, we had to wait another month, until 26 August 1988, before the chief medical officer warned the general public—another example of the Government's secrecy and delaying tactics taking over official policy..
Finally, on 3 December, the former Under-Secretary of State for Health signalled an apparent change of approach when she said—I quote with care—We do warn people now that most of the egg production of this country, sadly, is now infected with salmonella.I draw the House's attention to the fact that the first word of the text of the Select Committee's report was "we".
§ Dr. Clark
Indeed not. We all get confused about "we" becoming grandmother these days.
The former Under-Secretary of State was clearly not speaking as an individual: she spoke on behalf of the Government. The fact that she said "we", not "I", was a clear sign that she was enunciating Government policy—
§ Dr. Clark
I have given way three or four times and I am anxious to make progress. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will catch Mr. Speaker's eye later.
The Select Committee was clearly correct to conclude that it foundno evidence to support Mrs. Currie's assertion".We believe that she should have been allowed to qualify her original ambiguous statement, as she did in a letter to the Chairman of the Select Committee on 25 January. If she had done so at the time, much unnecessary suffering could have been avoided.
All this does not detract from the fact that the Minister of Agriculture has shown incredible complacency about the problem. When the Ministry found a farm selling eggs contaminated with salmonella in May 1988, it failed to take action and continued to allow eggs from a farm with a flock that was proven to be infected with salmonella to be sold to the general public. The Ministry issued no warnings to consumers. As the Minister reminds us, we had to wait until January of this year—nine months—before the Government implemented a clause under the Zoonoses Order to stop that sort of thing happening.
In evidence to the Select Committee the Minister justified not taking action sooner on the ground that only a small proportion of eggs was affected, which is no answer. Surely he must have known that people were dying of salmonella poisoning. As many as 35 died in 1987 from all types of salmonella, nine of them from salmonella enteritidis phage 4. Incidentally, the figures for 1988—they are now available up to the end of October—were considerably worse: there were 48 deaths from all types of salmonella and 23 from salmonella enteritidis phage 4.
§ Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)
Can the hon. Gentleman tell me from the table of figures from which he is reading how many of the people who were supposed to have died from salmonella poisoning were suffering from other serious illnesses? I understand that some were suffering from terminal illnesses.
§ Dr. Clark
The hon. Lady is familiar with the report, which contains the evidence to the Select Committee on which she served with such distinction. I quoted figures from the report because, as the debate is about it, I thought 786 that the best way to proceed. I do not have the detailed figures that she seeks. Paragraph 7(3) makes the point that some of the patients suffered from other diseases.
The Minister knew that there were dangers. The hon. Lady has made the point more succinctly than I could. We are all aware that the problem is much more acute for vulnerable groups—the ill, the young and the elderly. That is the message of the report. The Chairman of the Select Committee made the point that for healthy people the problem is not nearly as great as it is for vulnerable people.
The Minister made great play today of how he would bring the wrath of the law down on people who were found transgressing and putting public health at risk. The record of such action, however, is not particularly good. I have already cited examples of farms that were proven to be sending out contaminated eggs. Twenty-one protein processing plants were found in 1987 to be sending salmonella-contaminated feed to egg producers. In spite of being warned, some of them continued to ply their trade; yet the Ministry refused to name them, so the poultry breeders and egg producers did not know that their suppliers were sending them salmonella-contaminated feed. The Minister also refused to prosecute—so his words today have a hollow ring. The Government have been weak on enforcing the legislation and thereby safeguarding public health.
Another hallmark of the Ministry's approach is obsessive secrecy. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) seems to disagree, but I shall justify my remark. If the Ministry had not been so secretive, it would have been more able to tackle the problem. The result would have been that many of the egg producers and the workers in those plants would not have been placed in such a vulnerable position. They are in that vulnerable position because the Government were plainly caught unprepared and had no contingency plans. The fault is wholly the Government's and the Minister knows it.
The Minister quoted figures today showing that egg demand is about 75 per cent. of what it was. He knows that the irony is that in the months ahead, because of bankruptcies and redundancies, we may have to import eggs from abroad, which will come from flocks over which we have no control. That does not seem to be a sensible approach. Will the Minister work with the EC to ensure that other countries have as high a standard of poultry hygiene as possible? How does he intend to cope with the problem of the import of eggs from non-EC countries? How will he ensure that they are salmonella-free? As the Minister has pointed out rightly, we are dealing with an international problem. As a result of his own complacency and his having no contingency plans, he made the industry very vulnerable.
Before I leave the issue of secrecy, I must point out that the Minister announced last month that he would establish a committee on food safety to deal with salmonella and other issues, chaired by the eminent Professor Richmond. Since that flourish of trumpets, the Minister has become strangely quiet. Why is that? Who are the other members of the committee? Will he ensure that there are representatives from the consumers on that committee? We would find it completely unacceptable if, as is the case with the Food Advisory Committee, there was only one representative from a consumer organisation. On previous occasions, the Minister has claimed that there is more than one consumers' representative on the Food Advisory Committee, but he is wrong. There is only one such 787 representative, Mrs. Ann Strumper, representing the National Federation of Women's Institutes. All the other members who do not represent industries represent bodies such as the British Nutrition Foundation.
§ Dr. Clark
The Minister does not understand my point. We are in no way challenging the integrity of the people who serve on that committee, but the point that I am trying to make is that they are there to represent viewpoints and organisations. They are not appointed because they are consumers and the only person who is appointed because she is a consumer is Mrs. Ann Strumper. The others are appointed because they are trading standards officers or representatives of industry. I hope that the new committee will contain more people from consumer organisations.
In a recent written answer the Minister confirmed that members of the advisory steering group on food surveillance are required to sign the Official Secrets Act 1911. Will the members of the new committee be required to sign it? I must remind the Minister that we are living in 1989, not 1939, and it would be for the benefit of consumers and the industry if we had far more freedom of information. An obsession with secrecy runs throughout the Minister's approach.
A further reflection of that secrecy is the Minister's habit of not being open with hon. Members. Last week, I tabled four simple, naive questions about hygiene standards in abattoirs in the United Kingdom to which I know the Minister has the answers on file. All I received was a holding answer that he would reply as soon as possible. That is an example of the Minister withholding information from the House. He knows that EC inspectors are in this country at present inspecting abattoirs which, by and large, are in a dreadful state.
I want to draw attention to the point made by the Select Committee about research and development. Has the Minister anything fundamental to tell us today about that crucial matter? I would like to think that, when dealing with a matter as important as that, the Minister would admit the error of his ways and would step up research into the complex problem of salmonella. In particular, is he prepared to work with industry as a partner to try to continue Dr. Mead's research project at Bristol? There are only two more years of field trials to go. The Minister 788 would have the support of Members of all parties if he made an announcement and took an initiative on that project.
§ Mr. Ryder
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point and I want to quote from the evidence given to the Select Committee:There is a number of companies in GB at the present time who are interested in applying the work done by Dr. Mead on their farms. I know of at least two organisations who want to apply competitive exclusion techniques: in part to see whether they can assist in the control of salmonella in their growing flocks.Who said that? It was not a Government Minister, but the Government's chief veterinary officer.
§ Dr. Clark
I was under the impression that the Government's chief veterinary officer was paid by the Government, not by industry. Obviously, I was wrong. It seems to be privatisation gone too far when we find some private companies paying the salary of the Government's chief veterinary officer. The Minister must not play semantics with the House. The chief veterinary officer is an officer of the Ministry, as the Minister knows.
I repeat my question: is the Ministry prepared to go into partnership with industry, if necessary, to ensure that that vital research work, which has two years to go in field trials, is continued? The Minister knows as well as I do that industry is reluctant to pay the lot because it is worried that the independence of the study would be put in jeopardy if it funded the whole work. We are talking only about £300,000 for two years' work. The Minister and the Ministry have a terrible record. The Minister knows that over 2,000 posts have been lost from the Agricultural and Food Research Council and he also knows that the Government are shortly to propose the axing of a further 2,000 jobs in vital food and agriculture research and development. Will the Government recognise that that is a shortsighted approach? Will the Minister increase the number of research staff working on salmonella?
We tried to do some work, at short notice, on the Select Committee report. We looked at its recommendations about monitoring flocks and we believe that we need at least a further 50 members of staff in scientific work if the protections for which the Select Committee asked are to be carried out. It is imperative that if new research is carried out into salmonella money is not switched from other essential research work on bovine spongiform encephalopathy or listeria. To rob Peter to pay Paul is not an effective way to run research and development.
I note with interest that the Select Committee believes that the Government should actively discourage retailers from issuing misleading statements about eggs. Is the Minister aware that eggs are still being sold as being salmonella-free?
§ Dr. Clark
If the hon. Gentleman listens, he will understand the difficulty. Will the Minister confirm that he has not issued any guidance to local authorities about the misleading nature of such claims? In the interests of consumer protection, will he not issue advice to them? This specific issue highlights the Government's failure to issue clear advice to consumers and local authorities about food matters and the need for a body such as a food standards agency to give independent advice to consumers.
789 I am sorry that the Minister has not seen fit today to give us even a preliminary assessment of the Government's reaction to the Select Committee report. We have been able to give our reaction. The Minister saw that—
§ Dr. Clark
Ah, now we know who writes in Farming News. That is very interesting.
The Minister has been dilatory. It would have been helpful to have more of a reply than we have received this afternoon. By not providing such a reply the Minister has added weight to our charge that the Government are in a state of complete confusion when it comes to handling the issue of food safety, and has confirmed our general view that procrastination and confusion are the order of the day. The Government do not know what they are doing, and meanwhile the health problem is getting worse and worse.
I urge the Minister to take more definitive action in the next few weeks, if he cannot do so today. If he brings orders before the House as soon as possible to protect the public health, he will have the support of Opposition M embers.
§ Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North)
I begin my modest remarks with a declaration of interest. I am a non-executive director of J. Bibby and Sons plc, a subsidiary of Barlow Rand, whose activities include animal feed production.
Opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) said that it might be argued that the topic had had more than its fair share of attention. I do not think, however, that my hon. Friend or the Select Committee should be at all diffident about bringing it before the House. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has reminded us, questions of public health were very much an issue in the politics of the last century. We think of Disraeli or of Richard Cross—although my hon. Friend sounded more like a Gladstonian Liberal as he reeled off his consumerist aspirations in the Department. In any event, we are discussing public health today in support of a real and legitimate public interest. I congratulate the Select Committee on the temperate nature of its report, which I believe will be of great value to all who carry on the debate more publicly in the world outside. I also congratulate the Liaison Committee on choosing the matter for debate in the House.
I wish to raise four points. The first is of a quasi-constitutional character, and concerns whether ex-Ministers should appear before Select Committees. Departmental Select Committees are of such recent origin that they are all the time tentatively establishing parameters, not merely for their current work but for the work to be undertaken by successor Committees. The objective of a Select Committee in the last century—perhaps set up to investigate circumstances related to railway legislation—would have been to examine the public at large, not to examine other Members of Parliament. But when we set up the departmental Select Committees at the beginning of this Administration a convention was established whereby Ministers—who, by definition, were Members of Parliament—would appear before those Committees and give evidence. It was therefore necessary to find an appropriate and protective 790 framework. It was established, for example, that advice divulged by civil servants was not conventionally to be disclosed to Select Committees.
It seemed to me inevitable that at some stage there would be interest in parliamentary circumstances involving the resignation of a Minister, and it would have been inconceivable in common-sense terms for the Committee to carry out its work without seeking and securing evidence from my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). She approached it with quasi-Trappist enthusiasm, but that is not really the point. The point is that the principle was established and. I am sure, is of value to the work of Select Committees. Our thanks are due to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and the Committee's members for their handling of a very delicate issue affecting the way in which this place conducts itself and, ultimately, how it is seen by the public.
A more difficult task is to comment on the behaviour of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health, and I do so with diffidence and sadness because he is a good friend of mine. In "Who's Who" he states that modern jazz is his recreation—he is the Satchmo of the Treasury Bench. He is also one member of the current Administration who actually looks as though he enjoys his job. I work on the basis that one Cabinet Minister found in Ronnie Scott's is worth 10 captive cultural apparatchiks at Glyndebourne. As a consequence, however, my right hon. and learned Friend's relaxed attitude has the potential to slide imperceptibly into the cavalier. I well understand his reactions when my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South made her compelling contribution to the debate about food hygiene. On 5 December, he told the House:It may be that many hon. Members are a little envious of her natural gift for obtaining publicity. This is not the first occasion on which she has obtained great publicity on a serious matter".—[Official Report, 5 December 1988; Vol. 143, c. 20.]These are all matters of judgment, not of political morality. There is no more to it than the grubby business of being a street politician getting by from one problem to the next. From the day she arrived in the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South should have worn a label saying that she was a political health hazard. She was a person of extraordinary genius, gifted in almost every quality except that of being a subordinate, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State found that the matter in question had been given a most powerful lift by her television interview. It is easy to speak with the benefit of hindsight, but I say bluntly that that was a political situation and not a technical contribution to a discussion on health education and public health generally. Although it was understandable that Sir Donald Acheson, the chief medical officer, should have been propelled into being master of ceremonies for the next few days, I think that that judgment was mistaken.
It is a matter of careful political discrimination to decide how senior members of the public service should be used in such circumstances, and it is often a considerable political hazard. There has been an increasing tendency for public servants to be put into the position of being more overtly political in speech and behaviour than would have been the case a generation ago. That forms a kernel of seriousness in the wider issue. Although I feel that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State was wrong 791 to hold back from the circumstances for so long, I do not feel that he should be the subject of serious censure. Of course not—it is the kind of mistake that we all make on a day-to-day basis in the conduct of our political lives. Nevertheless, the Select Committee was absolutely right to identify that point and to make that judgment, and I wholeheartedly concur with its convictions.
On the subject of research and the comments in paragraph 41 of the report, I had not heard of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) as a great agricultural debater and he seemed to me to have a preference for the sword rather than the ploughshare today. I should have thought that there must be broad general agreement across the House with the recommendations of the Select Committee and, indeed, with the tentative response from the Government. Nothing can be definitive at this point, but I am sure that there is widespread anxiety that we should look again at the funding of research in the industry to see what is a proper and legitimate public commitment, especially in trying to establish the mode of transmission of salmonella and the whole question of bacterial and viral infections in farm animals. I do not think that this is an area in which one can be dogmatic, but there is a long and legitimate tradition of collective interest and responsibility in the funding of research into these matters. I hope that my hon. Friend will not think it too much of a streak of Tory paternalism if I suggest that we look at the present levels of funding to see whether they can be improved.
Finally—this is the point at which I have a modest direct interest to declare—I should like to talk about the regulations that the Government must secure to have more effective control over a healthy food supply throughout the chain. Of course, I suspect that the area of most intractable difficulty is domestic hygiene and what goes on in the house, where one can do little more than constant exhortation. Government can take action, it seems to me, for example, in regulations concerning animal feed, and I very much welcome the recommendations made in this report in paragraphs 62 and 63. The regulations which have to be made must, first of all, be enforceable, and they must be enforced. That is true in relation to both on-farm mixers and compounders. Secondly, in seeking effective regulations, we have to ensure that they can be applied equally to imported as well as home-produced products.
Those are my four points. I end as I began by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and his Committee on the report. There is always a tendency to try to fashion out of a fairly scrawny acorn a massive constitutional oak. I shall not do that, but I say to my hon. Friends and to Opposition Members that in the past decade or more we have seen a situation in which increasingly the power of the Prime Minister dominates the Cabinet and the Executive dominates the House. The traditional means whereby this House has sought to balance the Executive by debates and the normal forms of processing legislation are becoming less and less effective. I do not yet assert that Select Committees can tangibly help to restore that balance, but the process is well started and I offer congratulations to my hon. Friend and to the members of the Select Committee
§ Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)
I start by echoing some of the words of praise for the Chairman of the Select Committee. It has been said to me that it is very hard indeed for 11 people from three different parties to come to a conclusion. However, the reason why the Committee did compile its report so speedily and in such depth and, in fact, came to a unanimous conclusion, was that it recognised the very serious nature of the salmonella scare, the effect that it was having on the industry and the need to react quickly to determine not only what the real threats were but to examine the way that the Government had handled it at every level.
Not everyone saw that in the same light, and I refer in particular to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), in terms of the assistance which she gave to the Committee. It has been said that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South did the country a service in bringing this matter to the public's attention. That in many ways is undeniably true; she was, in fact, the catalyst which led to this inquiry and allowed the Committee to uncover a number of issues, whereas the Government, shall we say, did not give a sufficient response. However, it must also be said that her comments were purely accidental. They were not made out of any great concern for the consumer, and when she had the chance to clarify them, she did not take it nor, during the course of the Committee's inquiry, did she join the Committee to state what she knew about the serious deficiencies in the way the Government were tackling the serious problems. I do not believe that her role in all this should be acclaimed as being of any great assistance to the consumer. In fact, because she refused to clarify her statements, £3 million has gone on compensation which could have been spent in more productive areas, for example, on research or other medical areas.
At that point, I must take issue with the Secretary of State for Health over the way that he dismissed the criticisms of the Committee as they refer to him personally. If we accept that the former junior Minister had to resign over the mistake that she made—we know that it was a mistake because of the Committee's inquiries—we should also accept that the Secretary of State for Health should take his share of the blame as part of the collective responsibility of government, as he was her immediate superior. It does the Secretary of State no credit whatsoever to dismiss those comments, nor does it do the Department of Health any credit that there is no Minister here today to take part in this debate. I believe that Ministers are abrogating their responsibility in this affair by not being here to discuss it.
There is one issue in the report that I would like to expand on in depth, and that is whether free-range eggs are safer than battery eggs. The Committee found that the evidence suggested there was slightly more risk with free-range eggs than with battery eggs. This was because the independent scientific adviser pointed out that in free-range systems the eggs are more likely to be laid on the ground, where there is a higher risk of faecal contamination. There are also problems with droppings of wild birds and shared drink water, with the risk of cross-contamination. Those are very valid points, which I do not criticise in any way. However, since the report has been published I have had the opportunity to make further inquiries. I should point out that, of course, the Committee 793 was not given the responsibility of looking into whether free-range eggs were safer than battery eggs, but I would like to take this opportunity to evaluate the differences between them.
The evidence suggests that there is no greater risk with either system. I have seen a report by the Institute of Animal Physiology and Genetic Research at the Edinburgh research station by Dr. Hughes, who carried out detailed studies into the incidence of eggs being cracked when laid. He came to the conclusion that it depends on the laying box being used and he demonstrated in his work that there could be a lower rate in certain free-range systems than in battery systems. His argument is that cracked eggs are more of a risk than external faecal contamination. He also pointed out that the incidence of cracked eggs depends very much on the age of the bird; as the egg-laying hen gets older, the shells get thinner and therefore the incidence of cracking is higher.
I have also seen a paper by Mandy Hill, a MAFF scientist, who looked at the alternatives to battery systems, such as free-range, straw yards, deep-litter, aviaries and percheries. In July 1981 the former Select Committee on Agriculture recommended that the battery system of egg production be phased out within five years. I am sorry to say that few steps have been taken in that direction. Quite apart from the fact, which few would dispute, that the battery system is an unattractive way of handling animals, it could be argued that there are inherent risks of cross-contamination because of the constant proximity of birds. There are more humane ways of producing eggs. They may be more expensive, but people are now prepared to pay slightly more for products that are produced in an environmentally sensitive and, as in this case, more humane way.
Mandy Hill discovered that the perchery system had clear advantages, and that is confirmed in a paper by McLean, Baxter and Michie of the Scottish farm buildings investigation unit which points out that the perchery system has clear welfare advantages, providing such things as dust baths and wider areas in which birds can move around. In addition, the collection of eggs from Astroturf cuts down the number of cracked eggs in comparison with the battery system.
The 1981 Select Committee recommended that more research should be done and that funds should be allocated to look into more humane ways of producing eggs which avoided contamination. It recognised that any restrictions on egg production must be in the EEC context. Restrictions on the way in which birds are reared and eggs produced would be grossly unfair to our poultry farmers if continental egg producers could export their eggs produced at lower cost using a less humane system. The report suggested that there should be a block on such imports or that agreement should be reached within the EEC.
The 1981 Select Committee also suggested that financial incentives should be given to poultry producers who wanted to experiment with more humane systems, and I concur with that. The Select Committee pointed out that the Brambell committee also recommended phasing out the battery system.
The joint working party of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of Health and the egg industry considered whether greater risks were attached to free-range or battery eggs. It concluded:Initial thoughts that the problem"—794 that is, salmonella—may be more closely associated with free-range eggs are now difficult to support in view of the information available in incident one where salmonella enteritidis exposure occurred in the contents of two eggs not in the shell.It goes on:We ought to be very careful about blaming the free range system for having a higher rate of incidence.I concur with that.
The Select Committee made its recommendations on information available within a narrow context, but there is no scientific basis for suggesting that free-range eggs are more at risk from salmonella contamination than battery eggs. There is significant evidence to suggest that the battery system is an inhumane way of producing eggs and should be phased out in line with the recommendations of the 1981 Select Committee's report.
The Select Committee dealt with cuts in research and I wholeheartedly concur with its recommendations. However, since that report was published I have received correspondence from scientists working in research centres in Bristol, one of which is faced with cuts. Let me quote from one letter, from a gentleman whom I shall not name because I did not ask his permission to do so. I do not want to embarrass him, particularly at a time when people working within various Government institutions in the public sector are often threatened for speaking out even when to do so is in the public interest. It says:Quality and safety are foremost amongst the considerations of the scientific programme and, as you may know, the Laboratory houses the United Kingdom's leading group working on the problem of eliminating salmonella infection from eggs and poultry. However, since Government and AFRC policy on food research, especially on commodities such as meat, milk, eggs, poultry, etc. is one of contraction and retrenchment to ill-defined 'generic' research, it seems inevitable that such necessary 'public good' work will not take place. Clearly, the fragmented, introspective sectors of the agriculture and food industries are not capable of taking the broad 'public good' view, if left to themselves, and they obviously need strong direction and support from Government acting through the country's R and D agencies.It is clear from the evidence that the Select Committee received that, far from receiving clear support and direction from the Government, Britain's agricultural and food research institutions are going through a period of cuts which is undermining the basis of research into food quality and safety.
The letter goes on:To take the opposite view, as is present policy, and in effect to throw responsibility for the nation's health and safety on to commercially-minded organisations, is clearly as dangerous as it is ineffective.The Minister read from evidence to the Select Committee given by the chief veterinary officer about Dr.Mead's research programme at Bristol. However, he failed to read on to the point where I challenged the chief veterinary officer to say whether any commercial firm had signed a contract to pick up Dr. Mead's research. His answer was clearly no. That had not happened. Even if it does happen, it is irresponsible for the Government to throw open research which is so concerned with the public good to the whims of private industry without adequate funding or without ensuring that information will remain widely available. The package of cuts proposed by the AFRC puts at risk programmes such as that on meat identification which is designed to identify meats such as horse and kangaroo in meat products. To end such 795 programmes in the run-up to 1992 when there will be much more open access to such products seriously puts at risk people's health.
Another environmentally-friendly programme that will be put at risk as a result of the cuts is on the replacement of pesticides in crop control by the use of nematode worms. Green issues seem to be the order of the month, as dictated by the Prime Minister. The irony is that the Prime Minister visited that programme and saw it in operation, but now it has received the kiss of death and is to be ended. That has happened in the approach to 1992 when all our European rivals are giving more funding to their agricultural research and development. In contrast, we are giving such research less funding and throwing it open to the whims of a fragmented industry which is in no position to pick up such research programmes.
The Select Committee has given a balanced and well-considered report. The Minister has boasted today about the Government's 17-point programme, but it is fair to point out that the Government have done more in the course of the Select Committee's inquiry than has been done in the last decade in poultry research and salmonella control. That in itself underlines the value of the Select Committee and the important role that it has played in this whole affair. I also recognise what was said by the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), that the Select Committee had to go to certain lengths to compel the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South to come before the Committee. I hope that that has now set a precedent so that when Select Committees are trying to do their work for the benefit of the whole community they are given the support that they deserve from all hon. Members.
As regards the Government's policy on agricultural research and development and the cuts, I hope that the Government recognise that they are making mistakes. They have arrived at the stage where the cuts are biting so deep that they are putting the consumers' health at risk. I hope that they will decide to turn away from the ideological blind alley that they are in, and will put the needs of the consumer first.
§ 6 pm
§ Sir Hal Miller (Bromsgrove)
I follow very closely the remarks of the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), particularly in relation to the lack of difference in liability to salmonella between free-range and battery eggs. He has done us a service. He followed my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) in supporting a research programme, although it was not clear from his rather general remarks which particular direction he wished the research to take.
I join with others in congratulating the Select Committee on Agriculture and its Chairman on the selection of their report for debate. It is only the second report of the Agriculture Committee to be debated, but only one in 10 is debated. Thanks to research done in a publication on the new Select Committees, in a chapter by Geoffrey Lock, I find that up to the 1982–83 Session only six out of 193 reports were debated. Those reports contain 4,400 pages and cost £5 million to produce. In that period there were 80 overseas visits and 180 visits in this country. Since the 1985–86 Session, only six departmental committee reports have been debated, two from the Select 796 Committee on the Environment, and seven concerned with House of Commons matters, occupying the attention of some 150 hon. Members who have put over 100,000 questions. I mention this not because the work of the Select Committees is part of this debate but to put the report into context.
I cannot say that I congratulate the Liaison Committee on choosing this report for debate because, as I have listened to it, the argument seems not to have advanced much since the matter was last debated, on 19 December. I have referred to my notes for that occasion. What I have heard convinces me that the Select Committee has performed a valuable role in ensuring that some of the measures mentioned by my hon. Friend the Minister are pushed forward or have been put into effect, despite the claims of Opposition Members, but nothing has been added to the argument.
I hope that I shall not be misinterpreted—I have come to praise the report, not to bury it, but my praise is perhaps fainter than some of the Select Committee members would have wished. I welcome the recognition of the work done by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in introducing codes of practice, the market support scheme and measures of control and monitoring, although I shall return to that in a question to my hon. Friend the Minister shortly, and I welcome even more warmly the recognition that the risk to healthy people from eating eggs is slight indeed.
Why, then, did I suggest that my praise might be slightly muted? I venture to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), the Chairman, when he said that he believed that the function of Select Committees was that of a post mortem body—a felicitious turn of phrase, as my hon. Friend the Minister said in his comments on the report. I believe that the best reports anticipate problems, look forward and present possible solutions, but this report has been largely retrospective. Perhaps it has not been retrospective enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare is that rare species, a gamekeeper turned poacher. I have been refreshing my memory about some of the things that he said when he was at the Ministry of Agriculture on the subject of consumer protection and the poultry industry. I would not, of course, wish to embarrass him by referring him to his speeches of 7 November 1980, March 1981 and July 1981, but he certainly took the view then, if I may summarise his comments, that we should not go too far in introducing monitoring and regulations. There are certain passages which, as a good Conservative, he would still own, but of particular interest is the one of 7 November 1980.
§ Sir Hal Miller
I am quite capable of doing my own research.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, when he was a Minister, was talking about consumer protection, with specific reference to eggs and the marking of egg packs and the codes thereon, and I agree with what he said. He stated:In discussions with Brussels my officials have been seeking amendments with a view to achieving the changes that would be in the best interest of those most concerned. In addition, they will seek some relaxation of the present very restrictive regulations regarding the information that can be put on egg packs."—[Official Report, 7 November 1980; Vol. 991, c. 1649.]797 There are other, similar passages. Why, then, are my praises muted?
§ Mr. Wiggin
I am deeply impressed by the profundity of my hon. Friend's research. It seems to go beyond that normally carried out by a Back Bencher, but I will not go into that. Will my hon. Friend accept that even the severest critic on the Opposition Benches acknowledges that the problem of salmonella enteritidis inside whole eggs did not come to anyone's notice before 1982, by which time I had happily been translated to other spheres?
§ Sir Hal Miller
Of course. It was only out of natural admiration for my hon. Friend, perhaps tinged with slight envy as I myself have never held ministerial office, that I wished to refresh my memory of the wisdom and authority of his utterances in that post. He is correct to say that the incidence of this particular salmonella came to our notice after he had, unfortunately, left the Treasury Bench, to the regret of many of us, including myself.
I wish that the Committee had felt able to give itself the time to look a little more widely and to take account of what is happening in our partner states of the Community, because it is believed that this disease is widespread and has perhaps a greater incidence in certain other member states than in this country. That raises a matter to which the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) referred briefly—the question of imported eggs.
§ Mrs. Ann Winterton
If my hon. Friend has read the evidence taken by the Select Committee, he will know that those points were raised and questions were asked about egg imports. He is right that there is a serious problem in some parts of Europe, and we do not want to put our egg producers out of business only to import eggs from a place where we cannot control the standards of production and hygiene.
§ Sir Hal Miller
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and happily compliment the diligence of the Committee, but its recommendations lack a specific course of action with regard to the important matter of imports. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure the House.
I would have wished the Select Committee to look a little further ahead, not merely in regard to the research to which it drew attention, but in terms of how some of the measures that it recommended should be implemented. I wonder whether there are adequate vets to carry out all the proposed functions, and whether any consideration was given to the proposals by the veterinary colleges, whose authoritative research would have been welcomed and respected. It might have been possible for the Select Committee to take more account of the role of local authorities, and not just of the number of vacant posts for environmental health officers about which we hear so much from the Opposition.
I would have hoped for some reference to the slaughter policy and compensation to farms affected by zoonoses orders. I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I ask my hon. Friend the Minister about the scope of a zoonoses order. Will it apply to an entire farm or to an individual poultry house? That is a significant point for many producers. I should be grateful if the Minister would let us know.
There is also concern about how the monitoring and inspection measures are to be paid for. In the case of other 798 animal diseases the Government contribute towards the cost of monitoring and inspection. Egg producers are anxious about that aspect.
In conclusion, in whose interest has the debate been? It is not clear that it has helped the housewife, although the report and the work of the Select Committee brought about a response from the Ministry and was very useful. However I do not think that the housewife is better informed as a result of today's debate. I am particularly concerned that caterers have still not reacted positively to the measures that have been taken. Down on the farm, the position is still serious. Large producers are still experiencing prices some 15 per cent. below break-even, and there is concern that the recently determined slaughter compensation prices are inadequate and will undermine the confidence of suppliers, particularly in the matter of chick placings. Those suppliers will be concerned about the viability of customers who might be exposed to the incidence of disease, which could lead to a serious shortage of eggs and consequent high prices. The smaller producers face retail sales down by 20 per cent. and sales to catering firms down by 60 per cent.
I am still left wondering why the Liaison Committee chose this subject for debate. I cannot see whom it benefits, except perhaps the Opposition, who have nothing to offer—the idea that they had any interest for the consumer is laughable to those who remember their commitment to the coal producers or any other producing interest and their total disregard of any interest held by consumers of any product of nationalised industries. In that context, I must tell the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that the article in Farming News provides the answer. It says:Every night the members of the Labour party interested in agriculture (all three of them) must go down on their knees and praise the Lord for salmonella, listeria, Professor Lacey and BSE. These plagues have come as manna from heaven to a party which is still waiting for its policy 'revue' before it knows what it is supposed to think about agriculture.
§ Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)
Many years ago I was a member of the Ponterwyd young farmers' club. One wintry evening I was chosen to speak on behalf of the club at a public meeting of the young farmers' movement. We were not told the subject until we reached the hall. On the platform I was given a piece of paper which said, "You are given three minutes to speak, if it is your wish, and the subject is eggs." Being a young man, I found it very difficult to find any words on the subject, but I said, "If you eat a boiled egg or a fried egg for breakfast, you will lead a healthy life and you will be able to work on the farm for the rest of your days."
Forty years later I am confronted with the same problem. We are confined to saying a few words about eggs. But I have a little more to say this time and I shall speak for longer than three minutes. First, I should like to endorse the sentiments expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House on the excellent way in which the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) and his colleagues dealt with the situation, their urgency and the way in which they presented their report. I shall go a little further than the hon. Members who have paid tribute to the hon. Gentleman by saying he did an excellent job on television when the industry was at a crossroads and when the Government were in troubled waters in regard to eggs. The hon. Gentleman gave an assurance to producers and consumers that he would look into the matter and make 799 recommendations to the Government. Personally and on behalf of my colleagues I should like to thank him for what he did.
Tonight, what has been missing from the debate is a sense of proportion. A few unguarded words from a junior Minister caused great havoc in the industry and panic among the buying public.
The Government must restore confidence in the industry and reassure consumers that they can eat eggs without fear. It is vital that they do so, for two reasons. First, eggs are an important part of our daily diet. They are cheap and easy to prepare. It follows that the egg and poultry industry must be encouraged, and be protected from unfair competition and unforeseen costs resulting from the need to introduce new and safer production methods. Unfair competition will arise unless and until the high standards that are to apply in this country are matched throughout the EEC. Raising standards will cost a great deal of money, and may mean a number of producers going out of business. Consequently, imported eggs will be at a lower price. There must be safeguards against that both for the sake of the consumer and to protect the industry's future.
The industry's future cannot ultimately be left to market forces because, clearly, they will operate against the best interests of consumers. It is the Government's responsibility to ensure that the industry survives in good shape. It is the Government's responsibility also to ensure that the level of funding available for research and development is adequate. The agriculture industry as a whole has been apprehensive about research cuts, and many parts of it fear that important areas of research will be starved of necessary funds. A great deal of work and money is necessary to ensure the eventual eradication of salmonella in eggs. If we are to succeed, cash limits should have no part to play in that objective.
Sufficient money must also be made available to provide monitoring facilities, because the industry should not be expected to pay for them. The Select Committee has done a worthwhile job, and its recommendations should be accepted by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. At the same time, it must be remembered that the egg industry has gone through a traumatic period. Even today, egg sales are down by 15 per cent., with producers losing £20 million since the beginning of December, and the national flock being depleted by about 2.5 million birds.
Monitoring and improved production methods will be extremely expensive, and many smaller producers may feel unable to carry on, so the Government must be prepared to be more generous with compensation, and more understanding of the higher costs involved in developing the industry along the right lines. The health of the consumer must always be a priority, but that cannot be achieved without a positive Government commitment.
I make a final appeal to the Government not to dismantle the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food because of what has happened. The Ministry has served the farming industry and consumers well over many decades. I read with regret that the Labour party intends dismantling the Ministry; I read in the press that the Labour party is proposing a new Ministry of Food and Farming.
§ Dr. David Clark
I wish to make the position plain, because I do not think that there is any deep disagreement between us. We believe that all food production ought to fall within the responsibility of one Ministry—the Ministry of Food and Farming, say. It is imperative that, from the plough to the plate, food production is in the hands of one Ministry. Also, the consumer must be protected by an independent food standards agency. However, I emphasise that we believe still in having one Ministry covering both food and farming.
§ Mr. Howells
I listened to the hon. Gentleman's comments with interest. I shall not comment, because it is now up to the agriculture industry to decide whether, after hearing what the hon. Gentleman had to say, there is to be a change in the nature of the Ministry.
§ Mr. Ryder
Perhaps I may be of assistance to the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) because, by happy chance, I have a copy of the press statement of 17 February issued by the hon. Members for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and for Livingston (Mr. Cook) setting out their views on the subject, which stated:The Foods Standards Agency would be independent of Ministers but responsible to Parliament.If the agency is to be independent of Ministers but responsible to Parliament, which Ministers will answer questions about it?
§ Mr. Howells
I am very sorry for raising a thorny issue. We had better leave it at that for the time being.
I have a further question for the Minister. Will he give a helping hand to the agriculture industry, which has been financially clobbered because of present Government policies? Unless something is done, many small farmers will go out of business. Please give a helping hand before it is too late.
§ Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)
It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells), because we share a common concern in respect of many matters that he has raised in previous debates. I echo his remarks concerning the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which has served the country well. A very good case would have to be made for dismantling it—and it is not a case that I would anyway support.
During my life time, I have followed the advice that the hon. Gentleman gave to young farmers all those years ago, because I was brought up on the maxim, "Go to work on an egg". Unless I had a lightly-boiled egg for breakfast every morning, I would not have the strength to stand up and face you, Mr. Speaker, in my efforts to participate in debates.
Putting frivolity to one side, we are debating a serious subject. When the Select Committee on Agriculture was appointed at the beginning of this Parliament, it could not have foreseen that it would be catapulted into the public eye by the subject matter of the inquiry on which it reported in the middle of the salmonella crisis just before Christmas, caused by the unclarified statement of a former junior Health Minister.
I shall address myself to one or two points arising from the Select Committee's report, which was published last week—not least, the package of measures introduced by 801 my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. There is no doubt that urgent action was needed not only to restore public confidence but to prevent financial disaster among British egg producers, who would otherwise have been put out of business or placed in serious financial difficulties. I reiterate my earlier remark concerning the importance of our domestic egg industry and the benefits that it brings to this country, which would have been jeopardised if egg producers had been forced out of business by last December's crisis.
I was often dismayed by those people who commented publicly about the so-called strength of the agricultural lobby, saying that consumers' interests were being overridden in the interests of egg producers. My belief is that consumers' best interests are virtually the same as those of producers—because unless producers heed consumer demand there will be no market for their goods and they will be put out of business.
The fact is often overlooked that farmers and their families are also consumers. Generally they are not in the business of producing food that they would not expect their families and neighbours to eat. They have been somewhat maligned in some press comments.
I do not know what advantage it is to the consumer to put egg producers out of business. As we know, imported eggs have many problems. No Government could control the standards of their production and few guarantees could be given. It would not serve this country well for eggs to be imported. We must watch out for that.
It is also true that no food can be made absolutely safe or sterile. Cast-iron guarantees cannot be given. We found in our report that many of the food poisoning cases that we have heard about were directly due to poor storage, cross contamination and unhygienic practices in private domestic kitchens and in catering establishments. Much work needs to be done to tighten up standards, especially in catering establishments.
Salmonella enteritidis is behaving in every way identically to other salmonellas. There is no reason to believe, and no evidence to suggest, that its incidence will not grow to a peak and fall back, as other salmonellas have done, and then be replaced by another strain. I am not in any way being complacent, because one case of salmonella enteritidis poisoning is one case too many. I speak as someone who has suffered from acute salmonella poisoning, although I hasten to add it was not enteritidis. Some years ago, on my return from India I was extremely ill. I lost a lot of weight so that the buxom woman hon. Members see before them was a mere skeleton. I would not wish that condition on even my worst enemy.
Many of the problems about food that are highlighted in the media these days are due to the policy of successive Governments of providing cheap food. The subsidies that have been given to the producers, although not to egg producers, first took the form of deficiency payments and then, following our entry into Europe, the CAP. All those have been indirect subsidies to consumers to provide a steady supply of temperate foodstuffs at moderate prices, and to iron out the highs and lows of food production that can never be predicted, depending as they do on our unpredictable weather. Egg production has always been unsubsidised, but some of its overheads depend on the policy of the CAP, in the cost of cereals.
This cheap food policy has also been responsible for the development of our intensive livestock and agricultural systems. Farmers have always worked within parameters 802 set by the Government. Therefore, both after and during the war when temperate foodstuffs were in short supply, the agricultural community responded magnificently to the challenge to produce more. It was no fault of theirs that the bureaucracy that is Europe was made impotent to act by the political pressure maintained effectively by the small and inefficient farmers of France and Germany.
Our agriculture industry, including egg producers, needs not a kick up the backside but a pat on the back for its achievements as good custodians of the countryside, and for producing our supplies of temperate foodstuffs, thereby saving on our balance of payments. That subject is very much in the public eye, and being debated generally at present.
The difficulties that have faced our egg producers have been typical of those in an industry that by its very nature is fragmented. We know that 30 million eggs are consumed each day and that 68 per cent. of the flock is held on 400 holdings. The remainder are dispersed among 40,000 smaller enterprises, many of which supply eggs directly to the public at farm gates or through a local outlet. The big five retail chains are supplied by the largest egg producers. Stringent checks are made on the quality of the product. It should be said that the food chain in this country is far superior in every way in its high standards. It compares very well with the much lower standards of other European countries.
However, there is a genuine cause for concern that, through the Government changing the policy on research and getting the private sector to take up near market research, certain projects will fall through lack of funding. It is very difficult to unravel the difference between research into the public good and research that has an imminent commercial application. That difficulty is heightened because of the fragmentation of the egg-producing industry.
I suggest that somehow the egg producers must get together on research so that it can be funded by the industry as a whole, possibly through a levy. It is not for me to suggest the means, but it must be funded by the industry as a whole rather than by one or two major companies. It is obvious that developments on, say, a test for salmonella enteritidis to be used on the farm should be readily available to all those selling eggs to the general public, including small producers. Such a test and such an assurance would greatly restore confidence in the quality of the product.
I believe, too, that national standards must be set by the Government. All hon. Members will have experienced the diversity of ways in which regulations are implemented by local authorities' environmental health officers and meat inspectors. There is no set standard to which they must adhere. That mistake must be addressed. Such a measure will be unpopular because it will cost taxpayers money. Indeed, consumers must realise that they will be expected to pay more for a higher quality product.
The priorities of my parents' generation were having a roof over their heads, clothes to keep them warm and good food. There were no other competing priorities in those days such as mortgage repayments or repayments on luxury goods. Many of those, such as washing machines, which are often of foreign manufacture, or video recorders, are considered no longer to be luxury goods.
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
Before my hon. Friend, who was a distinguished member of the Select 803 Committee, leaves the question of paying more for the best possible inspection standards, could she share with the House its thoughts on section VII of the report, which the Minister completely ignored? However much we pay for inspection of UK production, is it not the case that if imports are not properly inspected the consumer will not get the protection, however much is spent on inspecting our own output?
§ Mrs. Winterton
My hon. Friend makes a very good and valid point, which I could not better. He is absolutely right. In my remarks about the standards of food production, I was also saying indirectly that if people do not want eggs produced from the battery system they must pay more for eggs produced in a different way. There is a cost for all of this.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about ensuring that the production standards of food, anything else that is introduced into this country are as high in the exporting countries as they are here. More often than not, the standards of this country are far better than those of our European counterparts. But times have changed. Surely good food must be considered as one of the highest priorities in household expenditure.
Many people have tried to calculate the risks of eating an egg contaminated by salmonella enteritidis. It has been compared by some as having the same risk as being struck by lightning. Indeed, the risks to people walking down Oxford street doing the shopping one afternoon must be far greater.
Although the scare about the wholesomeness of eggs for normally healthy people has been an over-exaggerated storm in an egg cup, many lessons from it will have to be learned by the Government, and the report sets those out in a clear and unambiguous way. I recommend the report to hon. Members and respectfully suggest to those who hold power in their hands that its constructive criticism and recommendations will be ignored at their peril. The Government will emerge with credit if, for once, they listen to wise counsel and act on it.
Unlike the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), I do not expect a change of policy to be announced after this debate, but the Government should reflect on the recommendations of the report and bring forward measures to effect the necessary change.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
Little did I know when I wrote to the Chairman of the Select Committee on 6 December last asking that we investigate the statements made by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) the amount of media attention that the subject would attract. Nor did I envisage the sort of political shock wave that would be created. This has become a high political issue, though I do not kid myself that I had anything to do with it.
I am surprised that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South is not in her place for this debate. The Select Committee report opens its introduction with the comment by the hon. Lady:We do warn people now that most of the egg production of this country, sadly, is now infected with salmonella.That was why the Select committee met. It resulted in 400 pages of evidence and a report containing many 804 recommendations. Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box on many occasions attempting to answer questions put by hon. Members in all parts of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) criticised the Government strongly on some issues, yet the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South is not in her place for this debate. That reflects the fact that the hon. Lady not only held the Select Committee in contempt but appears to hold this House in contempt. The least she should have done was to appear. Although it is not cricket to criticise people in their absence, I regret that she is not here because one would have expected her to turn up today.
I enjoyed being a member of the Select Committee and I echo the comments that have been made about its Chairman, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). He was fair and he represented the Committee well when he appeared on television. He presented the case excellently today. He was not entirely fair to two of the witnesses. Dr. Lang and Professor Lacey. Their view differed greatly from that of the Chairman, but they had every right to express it and it would have been better had he not criticised them so much today.
We produced a unanimous report, and I appreciate the support that was given by Conservative Members. It is easy for Opposition Members to criticise the Government of the day; it is our job to do that. It is more difficult for Government supporters to produce a report which is in some ways critical of the Government. Another reason why that proved possible was that Labour Members on the Select Committee took a responsible attitude. We were all after the facts and we were not interested in scoring political points. We have reached a conclusion that gives almost a good clean bill of health to this country's eggs.
The egg producers' representatives, as distinct from the egg producers, did not do their cause any good. They were, and still are, divided. The Minister criticised a producers' organisation. Neville Wallace, the director-general of the British Poultry Federation, did not do his case much good. Those representatives gave a complacent view to the Select Committee. They suggested that there was really nothing wrong with egg production, when we knew that there was a problem. The view that people could continue to eat raw eggs, as advocated by Mr. Wallace to the Select Committee, was rather irresponsible.
Nor did the representatives of the Retail Consortium do themselves any good. When, last week, we debated food in general, I referred to that body, as a result of which it sent me a scathing letter, and I gather it sent a copy to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare. It claimed that I had misquoted the consortium.
I was also sent a copy of a letter that the consortium had sent to the Government complaining that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South had said that all or most egg production in this country was contaminated with salmonella. In fact, she referred to "egg production." Here was the Retail Consortium, supposedly a responsible body, spreading the rumour that most eggs in this country were contaminated with salmonella. If those concerned claim that egg sales have gone down, they must, at least in part, accept responsibility for that.
Reference has been made to imported eggs, and that whole issues concerns me. The chief medical officer of health pointed out that in Spain, for example, between one in 1,000 and one in 100 eggs were contaminated. That compares with one in 12,000 in the United Kingdom. It 805 would, therefore, be dangerous for us to reduce our production and import eggs from a country such as Spain. Indeed, in view of the figures given by the chief medical officer of health, it might be wise for the Government to consider stopping the importation of eggs from Spain at this time.
I have been doing some research recently, talking to food companies which test employees at various times— for example, when they begin work with the company, when they take ill with symptoms of food poisoning and when they return home from holidays abroad. One company which has been carrying out such tests for a decade informed me that three quarters of all cases of salmonella poisoning among employees in its factory concerned employees returning from holidays abroad. I have looked into figures produced by another company which has been carrying out similar tests for six years. In that case, only one quarter of its employees so suffering had returned from holidays abroad.
Clearly, much information is available in Britain, and the Government should be studying it to discover the reasons for the food poisoning epidemic. I apologise for using the word "epidemic"; the report urges us not to use it. We must have tighter standards Europe-wide—most people who go on holiday abroad visit EEC countries—otherwise we shall not get to the bottom of the increase in food poisoning in this country.
Much has been said about the role of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but I shall not dwell on that today. That Department has been found wanting in many areas, but at least we have a Minister from that Department before us today and ready to stand at the Dispatch Box to answer our questions. It is noticeable, however, that there is not a Minister on the Front Bench from the Department of Health.
The Department of Health seems to think that it was not involved in, or concerned with controlling, the outbreak of salmonella. In fact, that Department was probably more guilty, so to speak, than the Ministry of Agriculture. I appreciate the way in which spokesmen for the latter have not tried to suggest that the criticisms levelled against it have been ridiculous.
On the other hand, the Secretary of State for Health has objected to such criticism. As I pointed out in an intervention, the Select Committee received evidence to the effect that as far back as February 1988 the Hull district local authority's medical officer of health, Dr. Dunlop, realised that there was a major problem with raw eggs and stopped raw eggs and undercooked eggs being given to patients in hospitals in his district.
No action was taken by the Department of Health, nationally, until July 1988, and only then did the Department give guidance to National Health Service hospitals. It did not give any guidance to the general public until almost a month later. That, in itself, represents criminal neglect of the situation—there is no doubt about it. If one health district knew in February 1988 that there was a problem, why did not the Minister know? I suspect that he did know, yet he took no action whatsoever.
I come now to the famous statement that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South made on 3 December. We all know that that was a problem, but, as has been said already, it should have been corrected the following day. The Secretary of State for Health came to the Dispatch 806 Box—on 6 December, I think—to pacify the country, and the chief medical officer was put on television to calm the situation.
Let us look at the facts. During the week ending 3 December 1988 there was a drop of 15.5 per cent. in egg consumption, compared with the corresponding period in 1987. After the Minister had been to the Dispatch Box the drop increased to nearly 30 per cent. Following his appearance on television the week after that, consumption had gone down by 49 per cent. Such was the assurance from the Minister.
I do not think that it was right for him to appear on television and use the word "ridiculous". I get the feeling that he is becoming a little remote from this place. My wife's favourite film star is Humphrey Bogart. [Laughter.] am talking not about "Casablanca", or even "The African Queen", but about the captain in "The Caine Mutiny". That gentleman seemed to accept responsibility for nothing. He used to play with marbles and put the blame on everybody else. He said that it was ridiculous to blame him, even though he had people counting how many spoons of ice cream were being taken.
That is how the Secretary of State has been behaving—and not only in respect of this matter. Those of us who saw him respond on television to the comments of the British Medical Association on his White Paper on health will remember his saying, "Of course, you have to remember that the doctors opposed the concept of the National Health Service." What he forgot to tell people was that the Conservative party had fought the concept of the National Health Service root and branch. I am greatly concerned—actually, I have to admit that I am not really concerned—about whether the Secretary of State's reputation will ever recover from the crisis arising from salmonella in eggs.
The main purpose of this report was to satisfy the general public that, having looked into the situation, we could tell them whether there was any danger in eating eggs. We came to the conclusion that there was a slight risk for certain groups, but our recommendations will mean that the British public can turn the clock back to the time when they could eat hard-boiled eggs, soft-boiled eggs, raw eggs, fried eggs, scrambled eggs—any kind of eggs they liked—without fear of food poisoning. If the recommendations of the Select Committee are carried out, the general public will be able, once more, to eat eggs with confidence.
§ Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)
I enjoyed working on the Select Committee with the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). Although I do not agree with the tenor of all his comments, I think it is clear that Members on both sides of the House, together, have been able to produce an effective report.
I should like to make two general points in introduction which I think have not been made earlier. First, the general public have only a vague and ever-changing apprehension of the nature of risks that they face. Very often the major aspect of change in risk is not some objective shift but rather the amount of media coverage that the risk is given. It suits us that matters within our own control—such as whether or not we choose to smoke—do not get quite the prominence of matters in respect of which we can feel that 807 someone else is to blame. In a sense, that is perfectly reasonable. I do not see why people should have to face uncovenanted and unacceptable risks.
In another context I suggest that perhaps one day we should give some consideration to the establishment of a national health risk assessment machinery rather like the National Radiological Protection Board in a narrower area to tell the general public about the risks that they face. However, in the absence of such machinery, as paragraph 101 of the report indicates, it just is not possible to eliminate all elements of risk and it is just as irresponsible to over-emphasise risks as it is to play them down.
The only time we become immune to risk is when we are dead. In the meanwhile, we have the problem that our grandmothers tended to teach us about. They worried tremendously about germs. There are germs all around us. We do not succeed in eliminating them, but equally they do not succeed in eliminating us. What is important is when circumstances change.
In all these public health matters, the real issue for the Government is the management of risk, keeping it at acceptable levels and, if possible, reducing those levels, and in laying the facts before the public.
The second general point that I want to make concerns the nature of the Select Committee's comments on the Government's response. It is a law of nature that if a Select Committee inquires into the actions of the Government it is more or less bound to be critical. I do not think the reasons are particularly political. I do not think there is some deep interest, although obviously the Opposition have a natural interest in drawing the tenor of a report away from uncritical support of the Government. It is simply that Governments are fallible. Governments always get something wrong, and, by the nature of their general duties, Select Committees sometimes have to criticise their actions. That does not mean that this Select Committee report constitutes what the media have presented as a "savage attack" on the Government. It is a balance of risk that the Government present; it is a balance of criticism that the Select Committee presents.
A Select Committee's greatest luxury is to be able to criticise with hindsight. The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) not only joined us in the use of hindsight but seems to have second sight as well. In earlier exchanges, he referred to the work of the Research Consultative Committee in 1985. When I asked him about it, he, quite accurately, but irrelevantly, referred to the general increase in the incidents of salmonella enteritidis, and phage type 4 in particular. I have no quarrel with that, but the fact remains that if one looks at the figures for 1985—or rather the figures for 1984, which was the last year whose figures were available to the Research Consultative Committee in 1985—such is the changing nature of the disease that typhimurium was responsible for half the cases that year and the whole complex of enteritidis, not the particular strain only, accounted for only 14 per cent. of the total number of cases.
Furthermore, it could not have been known by the Research Consultative Committee in 1985 that eggs were the problem because, even in 1988, the public health laboratory service said that the evidence remained scanty. I think that the hon. Gentleman was being less than fair to the House, and indeed to me personally, in developing the 808 point as he did. We all know that this is a changing situation in which everybody has been to some extent perplexed and at odds. I feel that the Committee had to make some allowance for that changing situation and the way the scientists have viewed it. As the report, in paragraph 20 and elsewhere, makes clear, eggs were a new dimension in a new variant, a new special type, of the multiple problem of salmonella. We did not know the risk a priori and we still do not know the full story. Hence the importance which various hon. Members have attached to further research. I welcome that, although the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who is absent now, perhaps over-emphasised some of the cuts in agricultural research. I speak as a member of the Agricultural and Food Research Council. The hon. Gentleman should study the transcript of the press conference at which some of those matters were discussed recently.
As our knowledge has increased, the Government have had to alter and tailor their advice. That is bound to lead to charges of confusion and inconsistency. As the position changed, the Government response had to change. In conclusion on the general matters, it is reasonable for the Select Committee to criticise the specific timing, but we cannot fail to recognise that the Government, like the consumer, have a problem.
That brings me to the specific points. We need to remember that the debate takes place on the expenditure that the Government incurred on the egg market intervention scheme. We all welcomed the fact that the final cost of the scheme was only 20 per cent. of the forecast. Clearly there was a need to intervene because of the massive drop in market confidence in eggs. Even though that has been partially repaired, long-term market damage has taken place and it has had a knock-on effect on other farmers, particularly cereal farmers. For example, all the efforts that the Ministry put into set-aside to reduce cereal surpluses have been wiped out by the reduction in agricultural markets because of the reduction in the demand for eggs. Faced with a specific and definable problem, much easier than the general scientific problems to which I have referred, the Ministry of Agriculture got its act together. It was very much in the interests not only of the public and consumers for it to do so, but of taxpayers as well, otherwise there would have been more cost to the taxpayer for cereal intervention.
Three other points ought to be emphasised because, perhaps through haste, they did not appear as much as they should in the report. The first, referred to by several hon. Members, relates to imported eggs. I attach considerable importance to imported eggs because salmonella is at least as big a problem in some Mediterranean countries and probably generally in western Europe. It is unlikely that it will be picked up by a few random and token samples at ports, even if samples are taken. From 1992 there will be an effective free market in eggs across national frontiers in western Europe. Therefore, the answer must lie in building on the working party which has been established to lick the problem at European level.
I hope that the Minister will make reports to the House after tonight on further follow-up action that he is taking in the domestic market and on the European initiative because we need to cut off the problem at source so that all eggs are salmonella-free, wherever we get them.
809 The second point relates to broiler breeder flocks. We naturally wanted to confine the report to eggs, but we had interesting evidence from Hull, which has been referred to in the debate, that there was a specific problem with double yolk eggs that are taken off broiler breeder production and consigned to direct consumption. That may be taken into account in the new provisions for monitoring under the code of practice. Broiler flocks do not normally cause a problem because chickens are cooked thoroughly before eating, thus killing the bug, but I do not think that eggs should be transferred from broiler flocks to direct human consumption.
The final specific point involves catering establishments. It is obvious from the evidence that part of the problem of food poisoning, though not the original source, lies in the kitchen. A single family cook may be just as prone to make mistakes as a caterer. The difference is that in one case damage is confined to a family and in the other hundreds may go down with the disease. I am particularly concerned about sandwich bars, if for no other reason than that I am fond of sandwiches. Sandwich bars should be effectively monitored by local authorities, even if that means that they will need more resources.
On the general lessons of the report, the references in paragraph 32 to effective control at all points in the food chain, from the farm of origin all the way to the kitchen, are important. There are many gateways and pathways through which salmonella may come. It is important to close and restrict as many as we can. Some are in the farmer's hands, some in the trade and some in the kitchen. We must have resources, the right pattern of regulation and incentives to comply with the regulations.
The history of zoonoses and protein processing orders, as presented to us in evidence, suggested that the position was far from ideal in the past. Of course, legislation was generally, though not always, in place, but it was not working effectively. For example, the Protein Processing Order had no power to stop the sending out of food from a source that was known to have been infected. There was no compensation under the Zoonoses Order. That put considerable strain on the professional farmer. If he suspected that he had a problem, was it wise to raise the issue? It also put a considerable ethical strain on his veterinarian as to whether the problem should be reported under the order. Of course, it should have been reported, but whether that was done on the proper scale is perhaps another matter.
Government Departments are always conscious of another problem. While it was uncertain that one could point the finger at an individual farm, as soon as the Ministry cracks down and says, "Though shalt not sell," it is involved in litigation with producers. One needs to draw a contrast with the practice under public health legislation which for some time has enabled the payment of wages to infected persons who are taken out of food factories because they are carriers; they may be paid until the infection is stamped out and they can go back to work.
§ Mr. Martlew
Is it not a fact that in 1983 the Government changed the regulations and people who are still salmonella positive are going back to work?
§ Mr. Boswell
I do not think that that has been investigated. It may be appropriate for the Minister to 810 comment on it in his reply. If it is the case, and if the incentives are inappropriate, we should consider the matter again.
As so often in these matters, the Treasury is the uninvited guest at every Whitehall table. Once again it has held the purse strings and has starved the regulatory machinery of resources. The result in this case, though not always, is that the cost to the taxpayer has been more than would have been necessary if there had been adequate resources from the start. This must not happen again. The Government must find the resources for regulation so as to restore confidence in the industry. The events after 3 December show clearly what happens when the Government move from a smooth top gear into overdrive; a measure of supercharging goes into the system and things go much better.
We are all conscious of the extreme sensitivity of the public to allegations of risk. The counterpart is the extremely vulnerable state of consumer confidence in many foods. It is not always justifiable, but that vulnerability is now established. It is the peculiar and special responsibility of Ministers of the Crown to inform the public clearly about what its happening. Never is that more so than when the responsibility crosses departmental boundaries. Once again hindsight comes cheap. One major lesson to be learnt from all these events is that Ministers at their own level must consult each other and they must speak as a single voice. In this case I fear that careless talk has cost the taxpayer and the egg industry a pretty penny. It has also, sadly and unnecessarily, cost one ministerial life.
§ 7.9 pm
§ Mr. Martyn Jones (Clywd, South-West)
It is not surprising that our Select Committee report on salmonella in eggs is welcomed by the Government with the same sort of enthusiasm to be expected from the Ayatollah Khomeini on being presented with a bound volume of "The Satanic Verses" in Farsi. Apart from the obvious embarrassment that any Government would experience from having some major blunders of several Departments exposed to the public gaze, we are, I believe, experiencing, too, the exposure of the fundamental flaw in free-market Toryism. Later Victorian society was not the laissez-faire: heaven that the Government would have us believe, but it was a period when the increasing complexity of society and. the increasing evils of free-market theory were beginning to become so evident that they had to be controlled. Food and water were the first areas in which social planning and collective provision were considered necessary.
The report and the Supplementary Estimate to which the debate refers expose a catalogue of errors, many of which arise from the ridiculous assumption that the state has no role in the production of anything. In a sense, the report should have had a wider brief, because one of our problems in Committee was that of avoiding expanding the remit to take in areas which perhaps were the real cause of burgeoning public health problems—for example, the poultry meat problem that has been around for some time; the uncontrolled growth of new methods of food preparation, such as cook-chill and the perhaps dangerous combination of that with microwave cooking, or, to be more exact, reheating; the reduction in the numbers of public health officers employed by local authorities; and the appalling cuts in research which cannot pay its way in 811 purely commercial terms. All those areas require close examination, but they were not unfortunately included in our remit.
As the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) said, the report was unanimous in its conclusion. I believe that the report's main areas are valuable assets to the safety of the consumer and to the guidance of the producer. As we are now in the Chamber, I am sure that it is in order for us to stress areas of political dissent, some of which I have already mentioned, such as cuts in research and the role of the Ministers involved.
It was amusing and puzzling to witness the antics of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) after she had made her statement. In fact, she became the very model of ministerial discretion only after resigning from her ministerial post. Could that be because she was told to be quiet by the Secretary of State? If so, why? If that was her own idea, was that for an egotistical or, dare I say, a literary reason?
The Minister said that it was not possible to eradicate salmonella enteritidis, but I am told that Sweden has already done that. I remind him also that there is a part of the British Isles—Northern Ireland—which has managed to stay free of salmonella enteritidis.
§ Mr. Jones
I am sure that the Minister's assumption is right, but I am sure that it does not have enteritidis phage type 4. I was trying to make a point that salmonella is a term that was used rather loosely by many people giving evidence to the Committee. As a Committee, we have been looking at enteritidis phage type 4 because that is the one that is rapidly increasing in Britain.
It is possible that we can eradicate enteritidis phage type 4 in Britain. All that would be required to do that would be for some of the balance of the £19 million allocated to repairing the damage to the egg industry—some £16 million to compensate for the destruction and disinfection of the few tens of flocks which have already proven to be infected—to be put into the immediate initiation of research into finding a quick immunological test for specifically salmonella enteritidis phage 4. The technology is there, and it was used for salmonella pullorum eradication. The difference, of course, is that salmonella enteritidis is near market only for consumer health, whereas salmonella pullorum is a chicken pathogen and directly affects the profitability of the producer. Near market research is a nonsense when we are considering public health and food production.
I shall quote from an article on Government cuts in research in the Farmers Weekly of 24 February 1989. It said:Agricultural research and development is in danger of collapse. About 2,000 scientists, almost one in three, face redundancy, work on environmental pollution and public health will disappear and ADAS is fighting for the survival of its R&D.The latest Government spending cuts strike at the heart of agricultural science and have triggered a massive reorganisation as beleagured scientists try to salvage a coherent research programme from the wreckage.The Government plans to increase private funding of R&D by reducing the financial support it provides. But the speed of the attack has left the agricultural industry floundering and unable to react fast enough to save many 812 endangered projects. At a time when many of our European competitors are stepping up research spending, Britain has embarked on a programme of cuts and closures.Reductions in Government spending on agricultural R&D are not new. But the cuts looming now are not the penny-pinching of a cost-conscious Government. They represent a profound change in political motives and will have an impact that far outweighs the sums of money involved.Even after pruning another £30 million from its annual budget over the next three years, the Minister of Agriculture will still be spending £200 million a year on scientific research. But the figures hide a massive shake-up in the way those funds are shared out.ADAS will lose more than a third of its budget, while the Agricultural and Food Research Council will lose £10 million (nearly 25 per cent.) and divert more of its money away from its own research stations and into the universities.The effect is to leave more and more ADAS and AFRC scientists fighting for a share of the Government's shrinking purse and the private sector's near-stagnant spending. Confidential documents leaked to Farmers Weekly show the enormous extent of the damage. ADAS R&D could shrink by two-thirds while the AFRC is considering axing as many as 1,150 jobs. The omens are not good.The political logic behind the cuts is persuasive. The Government argues that if private industry profits from the results of scientific work, then private industry should be prepared to pay for that work.What industry will pay for research into consumer safety when all that that will do is to decrease that industry's profitability? That is, however, what free-market monetarism means. We are supposed to believe that the Ministry will enforce legislation. But that implies state control—the testing and the sampling of farms and producers. Who will do that? Will it be the veterinary service? The Government are closing two veterinary schools—Cambridge and Glasgow. Will the industry pay? I doubt it.
How can the Government claim to be turning green but at the same time believe in free market capitalism—the dogma of which implies the exploitation of any market to its cost-effective limits? That is an especially obvious nonsense in a complex 20th century situation of public health.
What further delights of free-market choice have we to come? Will there be more listeria and clostridium botulinum cases? Will we see bovine spongiform encephalopathy spread to humans and become an epidemic? Will we see a reduction in standards of water quality—so that the Government can sell off a monopoly with more liabilities than assets—resulting in an epidemic of cryptosporida or enteric viruses?
The free market is a 19th century myth, and to apply it to 20th century food production is bordering on insanity. The report has illustrated that fact graphically.
§ Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West)
In strict response to the subject of this debate as to whether the cost of this intervention scheme was good value for the taxpayers, I must say that I believe that the money spent was essential and gave good value to the taxpayers and to the consumers. Apart from anything else, it stabilised the egg market. If there had been panic slaughtering of chickens, there would have been a massive drop in production and we should not only have had imported eggs, with all the dangers that that implies, but the price of home-grown eggs would have soared.
I believe that it was the Government's responsibility to find that money because it was as a result of a Minister's blunder that the matter blew up in the way that it did. In 813 my view, the Government were liable and it was right that they should come forward with the money. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) agrees with me. He said that £3 million was expensive, but had there been a panic slaughter of, say, 25 per cent. of the chicken flock, there would have been a massively increased surplus of cereals. I have it on reliable authority that the extra cost of storing those cereals and buying them into intervention would have been £110 million, rather than the £3 million that the hon. Gentleman criticises.
§ Dr. David Clark
To make the matter quite clear, when the Minister introduced the claim in December—the hon. Gentleman will recall this as I believe that he was present—we supported the Minister, who had no alternative, because we feared the import of eggs and poultry from countries where conditions would not be so good as those in this country.
§ Mr. Marland
I thank the hon. Gentleman. It is helpful to have that cleared up. I wanted to make the point about the £110 million as against the £3 million. Fair is fair—I will accept the hon. Gentleman's point if he will accept mine.
There is no point in reiterating what has already been said about the report. I confirm that we on the Select Committee considered its contents very carefully. Like others, I am grateful for the remarks that have been made about the effort that we put in on this and I add my words of good will and my compliments to the Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), whom I think one can describe as being in most cases fair and firm. I hope that our report has brought some sense of order to the situation and will help to get things into proportion and serve as a useful background document to any further consideration of salmonella in eggs or micro-organisms in food generally. The report attempts to show the way forward.
The report highlights the fact that Ministers have a responsibility to be measured in their actions and in their responses to any situation. I do not believe that since 3 December Ministers have done anything wrong. The hype and hysteria and the genuine desire of people to know what the situation is have focused a great deal of attention on the whole subject, which in itself has demanded instant attention and cried out for instant action. But instant action in this situation is not possible—we have to find out the facts before the Government and Ministers pontificate on the subject. People are confused and they want a guide as to what is safe and what will happen in the future.
The Government's action and speed of reaction to the correct information have been highlighted and complemented in the lead article in this week's Farmers Weekly, which gave the Government eight out of 10 for the way in which they responded to and handled the Southwood report on bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Such a high score from a magazine not usually disposed to write complimentary things about the Government is a great credit to my hon. Friend the Minister. The magazine's only reservation is one that I share—it felt that if farmers found that their animals were suffering from a notifiable disease and informed the Ministry they should have 100 per cent. compensation for slaughter. I agree because it is all too easy to slip an animal into the market if one thinks it is showing any signs of a notifiable disease 814 before one has to notify it. It would be sensible to give 100 per cent. compensation and I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that.
I emphasise again that the Government need a steady hand when dealing with these emergencies. We have seen the damage that hype and hysteria can do. We have also seen, with other measures that the Government have taken to try to give guidance to the public, that if things are dealt with quietly and steadily they can be effective. The introduction of seat belts and warnings against smoking, alcohol and AIDS, for instance, have been handled gently and steadily and people have gone home, considered what has been said and acted accordingly. I do not think that hysteria is the way to deal with such matters.
For all their self-righteous indignation, members of the Labour party—with the exception of those on the Select Committee—have contributed little of value to the debate. I do not remember their ever acting in the consumer's best interest. Throughout this whole episode they have fed the nation's worst fears with scurrilous remarks which have absolutely no foundation. Saying that the Ministry of Agriculture is in the pocket of the farmers is about as accurate as saying that the Department of Energy is in the pocket of the coalminers. The nation deserves a steady hand, and I believe that that is what we have both at the Ministry of Agriculture and at the Department of Health.
We need full details of research, and perhaps more research. A review of Government research and the publication of that information would be most helpful. With the benefit of hindsight, if the Government publish this information for goodness' sake let us try to do a better job than we did with the publishing of Sir Donald Acheson's advice on what to do about eggs. If ever I saw a diabolical advertisement, that was it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Scaremongering."] That is a matter of opinion.
As the Select Committee report states, we need an information and education campaign for cooks, whether private or commercial, male or female. In a recent Which? report published earlier this week in most of the national newspapers all manner of dangers were revealed. It spoke of dog hairs in the kitchen, cats on the washing up, dirty dishes left in the sink, inaccurate defrosting of food, wrong storage of food that is not defrozen and the inaccurate setting of refrigerator temperatures, all of which can induce salmonella in food.
I know of a friendly vet in Gloucestershire who has done some experiments on listeria to see whether and how it is controlled by cooking. He injected listeria into meat and then took two similar samples. He put one in a conventional oven and cooked it in the normal way. This killed 99 per cent. of the listeria, as he found when he tested the sample afterwards. He cooked the other sample in a microwave oven. When he tested it, he found that only 25 per cent. of the listeria had been killed. This is very important. In their own best interests, the public should be told these things and how to handle a microwave oven. I also know an intelligent grandmother who proved the point by putting her grandchild's milk in the microwave oven to heat it. The top part of the bottle of milk was nice and warm, probably a little over body temperature, and the bottom was still stone cold. Luckily she knew what to do and fed the baby the milk only when it reached a steady temperature. But that proves that microwave ovens need careful handling.
This is not a finger-pointing exercise, but I believe that the people of this country want to know the truth. I 815 wonder if schools could have more of an input into teaching young people how to go about cooking. Years ago we used to learn domestic science, but sadly that has now been dropped from too many schools and the children learn something else. Boys as well as girls should be taught. We are moving into new systems of food production which necessitate different handling of food in the kitchen. There must be a new regime of food preparation and a new awareness of the dangers of prepared foods. Changed circumstances necessitate new guidance. Many supermarkets are being thoroughly responsible in highlighting the way in which their customers should store and defrost food, but we still need more information—information rather than direction. I should not like to see the banning of green-top milk or soft cheeses, wherever they come from, because we could be banning shellfish next. Conservative Members do not want to live in a nanny state—we want information, not direction. The Opposition like direction and nannies, but that is not how it is with us.
The problem should not be underestimated. People both within and outside the House want information and guidance. Being a practical person, I intend to do what I can to get information to feed to my hon. Friend the Minister and the Department of Health. I am doing that by having a public meeting in my constituency on 22 March. I have invited a local doctor, a representative of a supermarket chain, with whom I came into contact at Gloucester chamber of trade and commerce, a microbiologist from the public health laboratory in Gloucestershire Royal hospital, egg producers from Day Lay in Monmouth and an environmental health officer. I, of course, will be in the chair. I hope that we shall receive some interesting information from the meeting and I shall pass it on to my hon. Friend the Minister. I know that we can all depend on him and his colleagues to do the right thing with it.
§ Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)
It is with great pleasure that I join with other colleagues who served on the Select Committee in complimenting the Chairman on his deft, sensitive and, happily, at times lighthearted handling of the Committee. I also thank and compliment the clerk who served the Committee, his assistant and the advisers and others who served so expertly and did a tremendous job behind the scenes to produce the report. It was with great satisfaction and some pride that I served on the Committee and participate in tonight's debate.
The Select Committee report is very important, not just in its subject matter, which clarifies the position on salmonella and eggs, but in establishing the powers of Select Committees. The Committee handled a politically sensitive topic in a unanimous way. I also pay tribute to the courage shown by Conservative Members who served on the Committee; they did the Select Committee system a great service.
Rather than go over the ground of the report, I shall comment on the Minister's opening speech this afternoon. His speech was empty, and his various excuses to try to explain away the report's criticisms were unconvincing. The Minister cited the difficulty of achieving Utopia on earth as an excuse for some of the Government's failures 816 and incompetences. When a Minister starts explaining his failures by saying that there is no such thing as Utopia, it is a sign that he is in trouble.
Another excuse used by the Minister and other hon. Members who have spoken was that it was not fair to criticise the Government using the benefit of hindsight, and that certain matters could not have been anticipated before the Government acted. However, some of the report's most telling criticisms cannot be excused or deflected by talking of the benefit of hindsight. There was no hindsight involved in the Ministry's failure to prevent eggs from farms deemed responsible for food poisoning outbreaks from entering the food chain. It simply failed to take the necessary action. Likewise, it is no use saying that it is only with hindsight that one realises that the Department of Health should have issued advice to the public at the same time as it issued advice to the National Health Service. The vulnerable groups concerned were at large in the public as well as in NHS hospitals.
Paragraph 60 of the report deals with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Government's failure to take the statutory powers necessary to prevent feed found to be contaminated with salmonella from being sold. That does not involve hindsight, either of the Committee or of the Opposition Members who have criticised the Government. As the report states,the action should have been taken several years ago.The Government cannot hide behind the excuse of hindsight.
The third excuse that we have heard from the Minister and Conservative Members is to concentrate attention on what the report describes as skilful handling of the intervention package. The Opposition gave credit where credit was due and agreed that the intervention package was handled skilfully. The Minister chose to dwell on that at great length in his speech. However, to use that as an excuse for the earlier failures—
§ Mr. Macdonald
I think that the Minister dwelt on that topic with a great deal of relief and loving attention, thereby hoping to deflect some of the report's criticisms. For the Government or their Back-Bench defenders to try to use that argument to exempt the Government from criticism is like a motorist who has knocked down a pedestrian claiming credit for skilfully administering the kiss of life afterwards.
We must consider—as does the report—the earlier problems and failures that led to the crisis which necessitated the intervention package. At least the Minister is here to defend his Department. It is a cause of great regret that no representative from the Department of Health is present, even to listen. The report covers that Department's failures and shortcomings as well as those of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It would have been sensible for a Minister from the Health Department to be present to hear some of the comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the failure of the Health Department and the Secretary of State for Health's inadequate response to the report's criticisms of him. He has tried to brush off some of the criticisms as being ridiculous and preposterous.
When I raised the question of the Secretary of State's responsibility in an earlier debate on a similar topic, the 817 Secretary of State tried to deny any failure on his part or that of his Department. He said that there was nothing wrong in the way that his Department had handled the difficult task of explaining to the public what was meant by the then junior Minister's statement on 3 December 1988. The Secretary of State said that the appropriate person to handle the matter was the chief medical officer and that no blame should be attached to him or to the Department for the way in which the affair was handled.
That still strikes me as somewhat mysterious. If there was nothing wrong with the way in which the Department of Health handled the fallout from the 3 December statement, one wonders why the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South was allowed to resign. If, on the other hand, she was right to resign, surely the Secretary of State must carry some of the blame, because he was her superior.
This is where I differ from the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen). He rightly attacked the cavalier attitude of the Secretary of State to the criticisms made of him in the report, but he was wrong to insert a wedge between the responsibility borne by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South and by the Secretary of State, because the responsibility for the crisis and failure of communication was shared by both. The right hon. Member for Shropshire, North said that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South should carry a political health warning, but, although her original statement was undoubtedly wrong, as was her refusal to correct it, the Secretary of State was equally wrong in his handling of her statement. Hereafter he, too, should carry a political health warning.
One of the things that strikes me about the comments that the Select Committee saw fit to make about the Government's handling of the salmonella problem was how much they parallel criticisms that we made in an earlier report on Chernobyl. Then, as now, we found a slowness to act and delays in taking vital decisions. Then, as now, we found confusion and lack of co-ordination between Ministries. On both occasions we found a failure to inform the public in time or adequately. Perhaps if the Government had taken our earlier criticisms to heart they would have avoided falling into the same mistakes on this occasion—but they did not, and they still do not.
The Minister mentioned the salmonella control programme being undertaken in Sweden. I asked the Minister a parliamentary question about that this week. I understand that the Ministry sent some officers to Sweden to examine its salmonella eradication and control programme. I understood that a report had been prepared on the programme and on its success or otherwise, and I asked the Ministry to deposit that report in the Library so that hon. Members could have the benefit of some of the information on which Ministers rely when making statements. Unfortunately, the Ministry responded that it would be inappropriate to place the report in the Library for the benefit of hon. Members. After all the problems and travails that the Ministry has undergone because of its failure to be open, such secrecy is deplorable.
As I have said, many criticisms parallel to those that have been made of the Government on this occasion are to be found in earlier reports such as the one on Chernobyl. There is, however, one vital difference. One of the causes for the Government's mishandling of the affair has been what some have termed their cosy relationship with the producers. This is not a broad-brush criticism; I do not say that the Government enjoy a cosy relationship with all 818 producers. I sometimes regret that they are not more sympathetic to some producers. But if we contrast the Government's intervention package after the salmonella egg scare with their handling of the rescue package after Chernobyl, the cosy relationship with the egg producers can clearly be seen.
Tonight, the Minister said that the Government were determined that there should be no half measures about the intervention package for eggs, but when it was a question of compensating the hill farmers who were affected by the Chernobyl fallout the Government took the line that the farmers would have to accept some rough justice. The contrast is obvious—
§ Dr. David Clark
Before my hon. Friend leaves Chernobyl, and in order to emphasise his point about obsessive secrecy, may I ask him whether he is aware that the Ministry of Agriculture is holding a public meeting tonight in Cumbria to explain to the farmers in the restricted areas the results of the aerial survey? The only trouble is that the Ministry has not supplied copies—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)
Order. By decision of the House, the debate must be confined to salmonella in eggs. Has the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) concluded his speech?
§ Mr. Macdonald
I have not. I agree with my hon. Friend, who has cited another example of the Government's deplorable lack of openness.
A group of producers in Scotland who do not enjoy such a cosy relationship with the Government are the fishermen, who have been affected by the quota cuts in haddock and cod. Another group are the hill farmers, who will lose out under the sheepmeat regime. When these cases have been brought to the Ministry's attention, it replies that it will have to assess the effect on their incomes retrospectively—no question of rushing in with an intervention package of £19 million to help fishermen or hill farmers in Scotland.
The lesson to be learnt from this episode is that ordinary people who do not possess the economic clout of the large producers—fishermen, small hill farmers and ordinary consumers—cannot look to the Government for protection. They can look only to the Opposition for protection and support.
§ Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)
Earlier in the: debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) alluded, in a witty and informative speech, to the proceedings before the Select Committee that produced this report. In one respect he was in error. He said—I think that I quote the substance of his comment accurately—that if a Member of this House appeared before a Select Committee and did not answer its questions, there was nothing that the Select Committee could do about it.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
I am sorry, it appears to have been the Chairman of the Select Committee. However, I think that hon. Members will find that it was also said by my right hon. Friend. The comment was not correct.
This House sets up Select Committees by an Order of the House and empowers them with their terms of reference. If a Select Committee's inquiries fall within 819 those terms of reference and if it finds it cannot continue its inquiries to the point of the production of the report, either because a Member of this House refuses to attend or because a Member of this House does attend, but refuses to answer the questions that the Committee puts to him which are within its terms of reference, it makes a special report to the House stating those facts. The Leader of the House is then, by convention, bound to move a motion from the Dispatch Box ordering the hon. Member concerned to attend the sitting of the Select Committee at a time notified by its Chairman and there to answer to the satisfaction of the Committee—not to the satisfaction of the House—the questions that the Committee addresses to that hon. Member. The position is not obscure; it is clear.
Select Committees are chosen by the Select Committee of Selection, not by the normal channels. The House, which sets up the Committees to do a job for it, grants them the power to do that job. It is perfectly true that the Chairman cannot issue a witness summons to a Member of either House, as he can to anyone else. The remedy that applies to a Member of this House, which does not, of course, apply to a Member of another place, lies in a special report. It is then the duty of the Leader of the House, who moves the motion in the first place setting up the Committee, to move the motion in the name of the House directing the hon. Member to attend and to answer the questions put to him or her. It is as well that that should be put on the record.
I read the report carefully, as soon as it come out. My judgment is that the Committee had discharged admirably its duty to the House. It would have been easy for it to produce a report lacking in precision or lacking in scope. It avoided both of those pitfalls and the whole House has reason to be grateful to the Committee and its Chairman for their industry and also for their lucidity, both of which can be seen in the report.
May I also commend the Committee's use of heavy type, which makes it easier to identify the recommendations from the general text. I want to focus on section (vii) of the part of the report which is headed "Countermeasures". It is of crucial importance, and I was disappointed that my hon. Friend the Minister, in responding to the Committee's report on behalf of the Government, ignored it. It is an important section and is headed "Imported Eggs". It says:S. enteritidis is not confined to Great Britain, but the Government's present powers do not allow it to prevent the importation of infected eggs as readily as it can ban imported protein.May I mention in passing that the treaty of Rome allows importation bans if they are bona fide for the protection of health? If we are not talking about the protection of health, we are not talking about anything at all. It is clear to me that bans on infected food fall within the bona fide protection of health provision. I imagine that that would be so even after 1 January 1993, which is so often referred to as 1992, as I must say for the avoidance of doubt. Importation bans are a necessary protective measure.
I now come on to a part of the report in heavy type.We recommendsaid our Committee, because it is a Committee that reports to the whole House,that MAFF study how far imported eggs are contributing to the present problem; and whether any tighter restrictions are needed.820 The report then goes back into normal type and the Committee tells us:Since the UK is not alone in the European Community in having a problem with poultry-borne salmonellas"—and here the report continues in heavy type—MAFF should press for Community initiatives to prevent the trade of infected products; and should hold similar discussions with other trading partners.There are good precedents for such a step. For a long time, we have been concerned that two EEC countries in particular—Holland and West Germany—have been sending pork meat products to this country that are so lightly cooked that they have caused outbreaks of disease in our pigs, when discarded sandwiches and food, inadequately recooked, have found their way into the diet of pigs. There is nothing new in saying that we need to intervene in the EEC to raise the standards in other countries. However, the last observation in bold type that I quoted does not remove the necessity for the first.
Unless and until the other EEC countries adopt measures and enforce them—the one does not necessarily, alas, entail the other—which will result in salmonella-infected eggs not being exported to the United Kingdom, we are perfectly entitled at the moment, as I read the treaty of Rome, to ban them at the port of entry. However, in practical terms, that could be done only if the eggs were inspected, because nobody will know whether they are infected unless they are inspected. It is here that we come up against the difficulty that unless and until we have a national inspection scheme, funded nationally on the Estimates that we are discussing today, we shall not have effective control over imported eggs. As this excellent report says, the only way in which one can tell whether an egg is infected is by penetrating its shell and testing what is inside. That is not in dispute. There must be, therefore, extensive sampling of imported eggs.
Such sampling would be far too much of a financial burden to impose on inspectors paid from the rates, which are rigidly controlled by the Government. That is why it must be a task adopted by central Government and charged to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or to the Department of Health. I said that in last Monday's agriculture debate, but it is wholly relevant to the debate today. Effective import controls to prevent the ingress of disease will not be achieved at bargain-basement costs. All the money that the Department is spending on controlling this disease will not achieve the confidence in this product of the consumer unless the market is protected from the infection of salmonella-bearing imported eggs. I do not believe that many consumers notice whether they are buying imported eggs. If they get salmonella poisoning from eggs, as far as they are concerned they are getting it from eggs, and eggs are eggs. It is no good asking them, "Are you sure that it was not an imported egg?" They will attribute it to a failure of the measures taken by the Government and the industry.
Let me say how glad I am that my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and his Committee also focused on the importance of hygiene in the catering industry and in the home. People do not smell their own breath. If they get salmonella poisoning from an egg, the last thing that they will believe is that it is because they cracked the egg on a dirty draining board in case it leaked out, and that from that draining board—which had previously had raw meat on it and had not subsequently been cleaned with disinfectant or boiling water—the egg 821 picked up salmonella. They will be convinced that the salmonella must have been in the egg when they bought it. They may have beaten it with an egg whisk which had been lying on the draining board before being used. Why? Because the draining board is a convenient place to wash up.
§ Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop
Very possibly it is.
These are important considerations. I do not suppose that I am the only Member to receive letters from constituents who applaud free-range eggs but decry the Government for not preventing salmonella poisoning. What has become clear from the report, if it was not clear before, is the significantly increased risk of salmonella in free-range eggs, which are exposed to the droppings of wild birds which may themselves be infected.
Apart from that, as the report points out, if the eggshell is dirty with the faeces of the hen that laid it—which is less likely in the case of battery hens, because their conditions are designed in such a way that it does not happen—there is a greater likelihood that the eggs will be contaminated at the moment of breaking.
The report makes useful reading not only for Members of the House of Commons but for women's institutes and mothers' unions, so that the message about home hygiene—whether it relates to eggs or to many other forms of food—is at last really appreciated. It may not be glamorous, but it is necessary if the public expenditure that we are discussing today is to achieve its final objective.
Finally, let me draw attention to the cost of inspecting flocks. If blood tests are to be taken, that could well be very expensive. I imagine that a separate needle will be required for every bird, for the same reason that separate disposable needles are now used when different people are given blood tests or injections by their local general practitioners. If the test on one bird is not to give a false result resulting from the test on another, the procedure is likely to be very costly.
If the cost is borne by our producers, whose eggs will be priced out of the market, the United Kingdom produced eggs or the imported eggs which do not have to bear the cost? As the imported eggs carry a much greater risk of infection, is it in the interests of the consuming public for the cost of the tests to be borne from central Government funds, or should it be borne by the producer, with the result that people must eat untested imported eggs?
I think that the question answers itself, as important questions so often do if we put them clearly and logically. The message that must reach the Treasury from the debate is that a significant amount of increased public expenditure will be necessary if we are to protect the integrity of the food chain—from the food delivered to the producer to the birds producing the eggs, and subsequently to the shops where the eggs are sold and the homes or catering establishments where they are consumed.
Catering establishments are not just cafeterias. As I queued for 10 minutes yesterday to pay for my petrol at a motorway service station, I watched fascinated as for the whole of those 10 minutes the door of the refrigerator containing sandwiches was left open while a girl put in packets of sandwiches, removed the prices and re-priced—I hope that that was what she was doing—the sandwiches already inside. The door of the refrigerator, a cabinet, was open for all the time that I was there, and the 822 House will be interested to learn that there were egg sandwiches within. The final part of the food chain may be in a café or restaurant; it may be in a home; but it may also be in the self-service cabinets that are now to be found all over the place.
If we want value for money from the additional public expenditure involved in preventing the consuming public from becoming infected with salmonella, those are some of the aspects that we shall have to watch.
§ 8.6 pm
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)
I am happy to have the opportunity to congratulate the Select Committee and its Chairman on the speed with which they acted to limit the damage done to egg producers in the United Kingdom, and particularly in Northern Ireland, as a result of the crisis caused by the ill-chosen remarks of the former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health. That reported, headline-grabbing comment created unjustified fears among consumers and dramatic falls in egg consumption, to the loss of those throughout the United Kingdom whose livelihood was directly associated with egg production.
We should not forget that egg producers are also egg consumers. They have young children and elderly relatives who could be vulnerable, and they are unlikely to engage in any egg production practice that could threaten their livelihoods, their own health, that of their loved ones or that of consumers. I welcome the report and its recommendations. I feel reassured, as will my constituents, by the fact that no evidence was found to support the assertion that most egg production was infected with salmonella, whether that was taken to mean most eggs or most flocks.
Hon. Members have referred a good deal to food hygiene. If consumers cook eggs thoroughly for vulnerable groups—recognising that there is a small risk with uncooked eggs—and follow the chief medical officer's advice, I am confident that any risk of illness can be avoided. Experts agree, however, that salmonellas are impossible to eradicate, so it is important that every housewife—indeed, every individual who cooks in a kitchen or prepares food for sale—recognises the dangers that can be caused by the careless storage or handling of food.
§ Mrs. Ann Winterton
Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that there is a part to be played by education and that young people at school should be taught in home economics about the necessity for hygiene in the home? Sadly, that subject is not included in the national curriculum.
§ Mr. Beggs
I thank the hon. Member for that very constructive intervention. Having been a teacher for many years, and having encouraged every boy in the first three years of his attendance at secondary school to gain experience in cooking and domestic hygiene, I feel that as adults those who have not had that experience will be greatly disadvantaged and perhaps—I hope not—there could be some risk to health due to the absence of first-hand knowledge of domestic hygiene. It is to be hoped that the Government will encourage an education programme not just for young people but to promote greater public awareness generally. I know, for example, that many people deliberately order cracked eggs for 823 baking and cooking. That is fine if they receive them fresh and use them immediately, but carelessly stored eggs provide an excellent medium for the growth of bacteria and people who allow shells to get damp, and so on, are creating a risk for those who may use food cooked with such eggs.
Reference has been made to the large number of eggs imported into Great Britain and the risk from foreign eggs. I shall not mention the sources that have already been mentioned, but I take the opportunity to remind the House that no case of salmonella enteritidis has been found in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, because the majority of eggs produced in Northern Ireland are exported, particularly to the rest of the United Kingdom, the salmonella scare had a very serious effect on Northern Ireland egg producers.
First, there was the effect on egg consumption in Northern Ireland, which fell dramatically. Despite the fact that no cases of salmonella were found in Northern Ireland, the publicity—much of which was well-intentioned—carried on after the damage was done, continuing to make the situation worse, and this had a significant detrimental effect on local consumption. Secondly, the scare in the rest of the United Kingdom resulted in a very substantial fall in demand. Indeed, the fall was so great that production in Great Britain was able to meet demand and there was no need to import eggs from Northern Ireland, so producers there were left with eggs that they could not sell. Local producers in Northern Ireland thus lost heavily as a result of the scare and, despite the Government's advertising programme and reassurance that the salmonella danger was greatly exaggerated, demand is still well below normal.
The intervention package introduced to help producers by taking eggs off the market and culling egg-laying birds did not have a great take-up—first, due to the short period of operation and, secondly, due to the fact that producers were not likely to kill young birds. Had the scheme been for older birds, the take-up would have been much greater.
Although there have been no cases of salmonella enteritidis in Northern Ireland, I am pleased to assure the House that there is no complacency and that the industry there has a working party involving the union and the Department of Agriculture, working together on codes of practice to tighten up the already high health standards in Northern Ireland. I hope that hon. Members will acknowledge that the large quantities of eggs exported from Northern Ireland to Great Britain are not "foreign" eggs but very pure eggs and that Northern Ireland has the highest possible health standards and health record as regards our farm livestock and the food products that we export. Indeed, an opportunist might say that Northern Ireland egg producers should be aggressively marketing their eggs at a premium here on the mainland because I believe that people would be willing to pay a premium for the purity of the eggs supplied.
Since the scare, I have not altered my own habits—confident in the knowledge that the eggs produced locally in Northern Ireland are absolutely free of salmonella infection. I continue to eat hard-boiled, scrambled or lightly fried eggs. For those who have not tried it, an excellent tonic is raw eggs—provided that they come from 824 a good source—with a little brandy to give people a lift if they are feeling low. I shall probably need exactly that after I have finished here this evening.
'Tis an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and I am satisfied that after all the public discussion since the salmonella crisis erupted poultry meals will no longer be included in layers' rations. Myth or no myth, in my opinion such recycling within the food chain is offensive. I do not want ever to eat any such product, no matter how well sterilised the previous product was before it was fed to any farm livestock, and I hope no former animal protein will be included in livestock feed.
Northern Ireland producers have still not recovered from the damage done and I am disappointed that the Government did not take the opportunity to emphasise and re-emphasise widely that eggs produced in Northern Ireland were salmonella-free. Nevertheless, I commend all those responsible for the report and trust that the Government will act quickly to implement all the recommendations put forward so that full consumer confidence can be restored.
§ Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)
I join my colleagues in congratulating the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), on the way in which he handled our meetings.
This report raises three essential issues to do with the way in which the Government handle crises. I would like to focus upon the inter-relationship between when the problem is dealt with at an administrative level and when it emerges at the political level. We have to look first at the handling of the pre-crisis within the Ministry of Agriculture—the crisis I am talking about is the great debate of December—and the co-ordination of the response across two Ministries because two Ministries were centrally involved in this. Finally, we need to examine the crisis management during that short period in December and what followed it.
The key to the first issue, the pre-crisis situation in MAFF, is at what point the doubts being expressed about health and the safety of the product should be translated from the administrative to the political arena. Ministers do not walk into their office on Monday morning and say, "Well chaps, how many prosecutions have there been under the Zoonoses Order since last Friday?" They have to deal with such a crowding of events that they must depend upon being alerted when events which have been rolling on in the Ministry begin to emerge as a problem which warrants political attention.
The first question that the report asks is whether those warnings were effectively coming through to Ministers. Were the people in the Ministry who had been dealing with those matters for months, if not longer, alert to the political liabilities that were building up for Ministers? Under the British system we have ministerial responsibility. It is entirely right that a Minister should at the end collect whatever flak is appropriate. However, it is also important that there should be an effective upward flow of information. If the job of civil servants is to protect their Ministers, their job must also be to warn their Ministers of any problem.
I deduce from my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and from the evidence given to the 825 Select Committee that the first time that the discussions reached a ministerial level was as late as November. For example, there had been no ministerial meetings with the industry before November. Before November there had been no plans to make codes statutory rather than voluntary. It must have been obvious before that that this was a sensitive issue and we are correct to criticise the slow pace at which matters evolved within the Ministry.
It is right to ask why that might have been. One reason must be because, in a sense, the Ministry of Agriculture is a Ministry apart. It spends a great deal of its time dealing with Brussels and the problems of the common agricultural policy. It has not been at the forefront of the great reforming drive of the past few years which has hit the headlines. It may not have become accustomed to dealing with politicised issues as may have become the case in other Departments.
It is equally true to say that there has probably been a weary déjà vu about problems of surplus and mountains affecting the Department. There must have been a weary repetition of the sort of problems that were constantly brought to the Minister's attention. Therefore, when there were warnings, whether they came from the Department of Health or internally within the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, they were not acted upon urgently enough, or they were not understood or they were not pressed hard upon Ministers.
It is also true to say that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is still fairly producer-oriented. I do not accuse Ministers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) was present earlier. Over the past few years the way in which the Ministry goes about many of its problems has changed fundamentally. However, the Ministry's origins mean that basic concern with producer interests is still deeply rooted within the Department.
In addition, the Government have set their stamp upon the notion that they are a deregulatory rather than a dirigiste Government. Therefore, I do not blame civil servants if they are reluctant about recommending to Ministers measures which might have a dirigiste stamp about them when they know that the inclination of their political masters is to move in the opposite direction.
That brings me to another difficulty that the report highlighted. Even if it had been agreed that action should be taken and measures enforced, the legal basis for that was inadequate. There were no prosecutions under the Zoonoses Order. One or two show trials would have been useful if only pour encourager les autres. That was not possible, and I am sure that that was because the advice would have been that there would be a danger of a judicial review and a defeat because of the legislation in train.
When the problem emerged in the political theatre, the action was prompt. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister because it was he who took the issue by the scruff of its neck, after which we saw rapid and effective action. My reproach is not directed towards the political level but towards the inter-relationship between the administrative and political levels.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was not the only Department involved. The Department of Health was involved. What do we know about inter-departmental communications? At what level were contacts made? Again I deduce from the evidence given that there were no ministerial contacts between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the 826 Ministry of Health at any early stage, but there must have been contacts between the Departments at other levels. At what level did they take place? They must have been at a senior level. There must have been such contacts. The Department of Health's anxiety must have been expressed within the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. So we come to the problem of the transmission of that concern at the point at which Ministers say, "Hello, we have a problem. We had better look at this. There is something here that does not feel quite right." I realise that in a sense that is a matter of political intuition, but it is a legitimate subject for concern.
Then we come to the crisis management of the famous events of December when my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) made her comments about the safety of eggs in a pre-arranged television interview. I am a professional journalist; a television reporter. I paid my subs to the National Union of Journalists only a few days ago. What would I do if such remarks were made to me? This is a matter for conjecture. but I would get hold of a Minister from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to corroborate the statement. I do not know whether those involved were successful in getting hold of the Minister, but I know jolly well that they would have chased him. That is what I would have done. That would have been my immediate reaction.
What does the Minister do? If he has any sense, he says, "Hold your horses. Let me find out what she said". He then gets on to his Department who gets on to the Department of Health. The telephone wires go berserk. I am sure that the whole matter was conducted in a civilised way. It is merely my hypothesis that this was most likely to have happened. Representations would then have been made to discover what was said and to find out what was to be done.
The Department of Health then has a problem. It has a choice to make. One possibility is that it can go straight in front of the television cameras and say, "This is not true. This is wrong. We deny it. We argue with the statement." My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was on his way to Montreal at that point, so we are talking about an argument between junior Ministers. A public dispute between junior Ministers is not an edifying spectacle. Therefore, it is entirely correct that at that point the focus should have been upon seeking clarification of the remarks to try to nip things in the bud by retraction or some sort of explanation of the remarks.
Was such a clarification sought? I surmise that it must have been. Was it refused? I suspect that it must have been denied at that point. That failure to clarify meant that. the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the producers were then put in the position of refuting an allegation. There was no requirement to substantiate the allegation. That is contrary to everything that I have learnt, even as an amateur of the principles of English law where one is innocent until proven guilty.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health came to the House and told us what the situation was. The Government's chief medical officer was sent in to bat. In the absence of a clarification from the author of those remarks, we had a drama involving Hamlet without the princess. That was the key to the problem. When, later on, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South said that she stood by her remarks we 827 were going downhill all the way. The crisis management was extremely difficult in any case, but it got beyond control at a fairly early stage.
When we got over that hump and reached the position when it was necesary to put measures in place, we saw crisis management at its best. The Government acted responsibly and quickly and, as it proved, economically. That floor was put under the industry, albeit at a late stage, because of events, and it prevented what was a defeat from turning into a rout. From the figures that we have had today, we know that consumption is now significantly down. But that package was opportune and well constructed and it turned out to be economical as well. In congratulating the Ministry on doing that, our report is quite justified, just as it is justified in its criticisms where they have been made. I am sure that everyone will recognise the essential equilibrium of the balance at the heart of the report.
My conclusion is that, while we need not shift furniture around, we must make sure that the Department has an effective mechanism for the vertical transmission of information within it and also that, where Departments have to co-ordinate, they do so in an effective manner. The least good remedy would be to create yet another institution which would require co-ordination with yet more bodies.
The lessons from this experience are to make sure that those Ministries and other existing bodies operate effectively and that we do not attempt to solve a problem simply by an institutional rearrangement because, in the end, it is efficiency of the people that matters, not the geography of the institutions. It would be an entirely wrong appreciation of the problem if we went in that direction instead of recognising that it is the quality of the people that is essential to this debate.
The report is both apposite and balanced. I am pleased that we have been able to sign it, despite one or two reticences at an earlier stage in the procedure, and I am happy to join in the congratulations to the Committee's Chairman who has made such a good job of representing us here in this Chamber, as he has done throughout the debate.
§ Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)
I congratulate the Chairman and members of the Select Committee in performing such an admirable public duty, the speed with which it conducted its affairs and presented its report and for its service not only to the House but to the public generally, both producers and consumers. I would also like to compliment the House on the responsible way in which, for the most part, this debate has been conducted, in that we have tried to draw the lessons from the whole salmonella affair.
I detected at an early stage that panic was setting in, following the remarks of the then junior Health Minister, because I went to a restaurant in the capital city of Wales, Cardiff, shortly afterwards and from the menu I saw that, for the first time ever, I could order a mixed grill with or without eggs. That showed me that the retail side of the trade in restaurants was panicking. What was remarkable was that the people who were actually buying the eggs were not panicking as much as people who were buying 828 them in the restaurants. Although the retailers were not prepared to buy eggs from producers, very often the consumer was perfectly happy to buy them.
One could see immediately the remark was made that producers would suffer. I declare an interest in that my son keeps a few hens. As he had decided that there might be a few pennies in it for him, we decided to carry out an academic exercise. We bought a little book and worked out a profit and loss account. My son suddenly realised that there was not a lot of money in eggs, that the margins were extremely low and that he would have to have a very large flock of hens before he could get a return and pay himself a decent wage. So he and I both knew, as soon as that remark was made and because we were aware of the very small margins for most egg producers, that they would be in deep financial trouble very quickly.
What was required at an early date was that confidence in eggs should be restored. The problem was that the Department of Health consistently refused to contradict the statement of the junior Health Minister. All that happened when the Secretary of State for Health came to the House was that he repeated over and over the view of the chief medical officer. Unfortunately, the public was still left with the view of the junior Health Minister and, unless there was a retraction of her statement, the public would still believe that there was a problem. Until there was an adequate retraction of that statement, we would continue to have problems.
When the Secretary of State for Health came to the House to respond to a private notice question a few days after the event, he adopted a rather cavalier approach to the whole affair, and I am afraid that the House itself in many ways adopted a cavalier approach. The House should remember that what we say here amongst ourselves is reported out there and that the people out there are concerned about things that go on.
When the Secretary of State appeared before the Committee to give evidence and was asked about the junior Health Minister's statement, he said:The statement on the Saturday interview, the material statement if you like, I do not actually have an opinion on because as I said, personally reading it I think it is ambiguous.The public did not think that it was ambiguous; the public thought that it was a real problem. The Secretary of State was armed with briefings and with all the up-to-date information. He may, therefore, have considered that the statement was ambiguous, but the public did not think that it was. The Minister failed at that stage to contradict the statement; it might have breached collective responsibility. Yet his duty to the producer and the consumer should have meant that at that stage he put the record straight. So collective responsibility within the Government took precedence over the duty of the Government to present information to the public.
I want to compliment the Minister of Agriculture on the way in which he eventually handled the crisis. There is no doubt that market confidence had been lost and that, in view of their small profit margins, egg producers faced financial ruin. The Minister acted properly because he put a floor into the market. He acted responsibly and in the way one would expect a Minister to act, bearing in mind that he was trying to respond to a crisis which was not of his making. The industry itself was pleased with the way in which he eventually reacted.
829 What lessons do we learn from the crisis? In the way that the political side of it was dealt with, it should have been realised that the unfortunate remark, which was only later and partially retracted in a letter to the Select Committee, should have been retracted earlier, and the Minister should have been able to handle the affair at the Dispatch Box. We could then have ensured that the crisis would not deepen, as eventually it did. The Government should have accepted that responsibility.
The crux of the matter is underlined in paragraph 111 of the report, which says:We believe the public is entitled to expect the Government to take, and be seen to take, all reasonable measures to ensure the safety of food.That clearly is the case and we need to underline it. But do we need a new Department to deal with this? My own view—I speak for no one else on these or other Benches in this regard—is that we probably do not. It is not the structures that are important, but the way that people in the existing Departments respond.
I take the point made in the report that there needs to be grater liaison and co-ordination between Departments. I feel pretty sure that the lesson of the debacle will have been learnt in both Departments and that from now on there will be more liaison and more discussion to ensure that it will not be repeated in future. I commend the report to the House because I believe that it is a responsible report and we should all learn from it.
§ Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)
I begin by replying immediately to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones), who concluded that he did not consider that there was a need for any structural change in the organisation of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That gives me the opportunity to reply to the specific question raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells), who asked what Labour policy was. The Minister will be desperately anxious to hear my answer because tomorrow morning he will have to reassure his advisers that, in the event of a forthcoming Labour victory, they will still be employed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I am happy to reassure him that we propose to retain the integrity of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. However, we propose to establish a food protection agency, an independent body answerable to the Cabinet Office. In direct reply to the question that the Minister asked my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), of course the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be responsible for replying to parliamentary questions in exactly the same way as the Secretary of State for the Environment replies to questions on the Countryside Commission.
I turn to more general matters by saying how much I have enjoyed the debate. I have been present throughout the debate and heard all the speeches. There is no doubt that it has been a full debate and, by and large, it has been a well-informed debate in which nine members of the Select Committee and hon. Members representing all parts of the United Kingdom have spoken. It has been noticeable that there has been agreement across the Floor of the House on several points, which I shall identify, because the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), may draw some comfort from them and may wish to discuss them 830 with Chairmen of other Select Committees. I hope that the Minister will note them because there are some matters which he should consider within his Department. I offer them not as partisan criticism but as an honest attempt to assist the Chairman of the Select Committee and the Minister.
The first matter of agreement is the way in which all hon. Members have congratulated the Chairman of the Select Committee on the presentation of his report and hon. Members on the Select Committee have commended him on his chairmanship and on the way in which he conducted proceedings. The report is a splendid example of good English. It was easy to read and to understand and that has assisted our deliberations.
Secondly, we all recognise that there is a potential hazard in egg consumption. We recognise that the hazard is minimal, but if public confidence is to be maintained the highest standards must be seen to apply and in that respect the Government carry a major responsibility.
Thirdly, and following from that, if we accept that the Government have taken steps to ensure that the highest standards apply in Britain, many hon. Members have expressed a very real fear that imported eggs which will substitute for the disturbed market in Britain may well have been produced in less favourable conditions than those which apply to British egg producers. Obviously, that puts British producers and consumers at a disadvantage. The Minister has been asked several times what he intends to do about that. The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) gave the Minister a direct challenge. I do not expect the Minister to respond this evening, but I urge him to listen carefully to the real concerns that have been voiced. If he is to ensure that the protection that he is extending to domestically-produced eggs is successful, parallel measures must apply to imports. That point has united the House this evening.
Fourthly, Conservative and Opposition Members recognise that the cuts in research during the past 12 months were ill-advised and the Government have to reconsider the extent to which they are withdrawing funding, or the way in which they attempt to define market-led research and identify what research is in the common good.
Fifthly, at the beginning of the debate the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) spoke about the service which had been done to the Select Committee: system generally. I add my personal congratulations to the: Chairman of the Select Committee on the way in which he. conducted the affair of the missing hon. Member, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). No doubt we shall talk about her later. Clearly, a precedent has been established that hon. Members can be required to attend Select Committees. I am only sorry that the Committee did not come to the House and request the House to resolve that the hon. Lady be required to attend and answer to the satisfaction of the Committee. Having read very carefully her responses to the Committee and the questions that were asked but not answered, I felt that she was deliberately refusing to co-operate with the spirit of the questions. She has done the Select Committee system a disservice. To some extent, at least, that has been balanced by the way in which the Committee—with the sole exception of the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry)—unanimously agreed to support the Chairman's request. That bodes well for the Select Committee system.
831 Finally, the Minister must accept criticism in the report directed against the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health. It is quite clear that when the Select Committee was reaching its conclusions partisan considerations could not have been uppermost in its mind because it had a Conservative majority. I am confident that it was not concerned with scoring political points but rather was concerned to learn the lessons of the events of the past 12 months, to ensure that the Government were aware of how the House of Commons perceived them and that the Government were sufficiently aware to prevent them from happening again.
As for the substance of the report, there is evidence that throughout the 1980s the Government were aware of the existence of a problem of salmonella enteritidis associated with eggs. They were certainly aware of hazards to human health posed by salmonella and therefore alarm bells should have been ringing during 1988 as the number of reported cases rose inexorably and dramatically. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) raised that matter with my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, who pointed out the evidence on page 1 of the report showing the marked increase in salmonella infection.
It was the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South who unleashed the storm with her now infamous statement thatmost of the egg production of this country, sadly, is now infected with salmonella".It is my personal regret that she is not present this evening. By her absence, she has shown further her lack of concern for the proceedings of the House and for the damage which she caused the British egg industry and to her Government. I wish to put on record that I wrote to the hon. Lady this afternoon, letting her know that I intended making some remarks about her conduct.[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has so perceptively noticed, she is not present. I understand that my hon. Friend has been engaged on other Commons business and has not been fully aware of our proceedings. If he wishes to intervene, I shall be happy to give way to him shortly, but first I wish to place on the record one particular point. I refer to the conduct of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to place different interpretations on the statements made by the former junior Health Minister last December. However charitably we may do so, there is no mistaking the impact that her statement was bound to have on British consumers, which was the point made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn. Here was a Government Health Minister who deliberately and consciously cultivated the art of publicity, and who decided, deliberately and consciously, to draw the attention of the British public, via the media, to what the Government perceived to be health problems. Whether they were associated with smoking, diet, AIDS or hypothermia, the hon. Lady deliberately drew those matters to public attention by the use of colourful, extravagant language.
The hon. Lady, speaking as a Government Health Minister, said thatmost … production of this country, sadly, is now infected".She did not say "some" production or "part" of the production, but "most" production. In her words, the majority of production was infected with salmonella. Last year saw a massive rise in salmonella poisoning, and the 832 public knew that it could kill. The public knew that there had been a dramatic rise in the incidence of salmonella poisoning throughout 1988 and it was small wonder that in December 1988, in the light of the junior Minister's statement, the public reacted as they did, and small wonder that the market for British eggs went through the floor.
In the early weeks of last December, the British egg industry suffered a 50 per cent. drop in consumption and, at times, an 80 per cent. drop in sales. Catastrophe loomed, redundancies were announced, and a whole industry was threatened. The Government had to act, and act they did—in a way that has brought commendations from the Select Committee. While we may have had our differences with the Government when their rescue package was announced and while, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields made clear, there were points of detail that we challenged, we unequivocally supported the Government's rescue package. The package won the commendation of the Select Committee and all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken this evening have also commended the Government on the way in which the package was designed and on the way in which it operated to put a floor in the market.
Nearly £20 million was allocated from public funds with the objective of putting a floor in the market. That £20 million was the immediate and minimum sum that the British public were asked to guarantee as the cost of the then junior Minister's gaffe. We know now that it was a gaffe. The Select Committee concluded:We found no evidence to support Mrs. Currie's assertion … That statement should have been immediately corrected. It was a failure of Government and not just of a single Minister, that it was not corrected.The Government could not respond. They were ill-prepared to deal with the crisis. They failed to respond to earlier warnings. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health had inadequate arrangements for monitoring public health standards and they fought a semi-public battle for their respective empires. Most critically of all, they did not understand the salmonella problem. Inadequate information existed—and still exists—about salmonella's nature, extent, origins, method of transmission, and effects.
Unbelievably, the Government had cut the very research programmes that would have produced the answers. The Bristol research unit was to be closed. Staff of the state veterinary service had been cut by 20 per cent., and routine inspections of our food manufacturing industry by environmental health officers were a thing of the past. Against that background, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food could not respond adequately because it would have been forced to acknowledge its ignorance. If the Ministry had done that, it would have been compelled to acknowledge also the actions that were perpetuating that ignorance. Here was a disaster waiting to happen, and it did so in the form of the junior Health Minister.
We understand now that the junior Minister was not the innocent victim of the National Farmers Union machine or a valiant battler against the secrecy of the Whitehall battalions. She was neither of those things. She was a silly woman, petulant when exposed as such, and arrogant in her dealings with the Select Committee. Had it not been for timing even more inept than the Ministry's own handling of the matter, when the hon. Lady revealed 833 that she stood to gain £100,000 from selling her inside story for publication, she might never have appeared before the Select Committee. If any right hon. or hon. Member had any doubts about the propriety or constitutionality of a Select Committee summoning a Member of the House of Commons to appear before it, they would have been dispelled by the histrionics displayed by the hon. Lady up to and on 8 February. It is to the greater credit of the Select Committee's Chairman and members that they resisted that provocation.
The Government are culpable on two counts. If two Cabinet Ministers knew of the inaccuracies of the 3 December statement, as they should have done from their briefings, they should have acted swiftly, unequivocally and emphatically in requiring a retraction and public apology from their errant colleague. Statements in the House distancing Cabinet Ministers from junior Ministers were inadequate. The decision to put up a paid public servant to try to distance the Whitehall machine from a public political statement was also inadequate. There was only one way in which that sin of commission could have been corrected—by the Minister responsible for making a public statement acknowledging that she was wrong, that her statement was wrong, and that the advice that she gave the British public was wrong.
The Secretary of State for Health's refusal to ensure that his junior Minister took the appropriate action and his public refusal to dissociate himself from his junior Minister and to dismiss her make him complicit in that sin of commission—[Interruption.] I am glad that I am striking a chord with my hon. Friends. I am not inviting my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover to intervene, but if he wishes to do so, I shall be happy to let him. It is clear that neither of the Ministers understood, and certainly did not indicate, that their concern for their political and office interests was more pressing than their concern for the public good.
During the mounting crisis, the Minister of Agriculture signally failed to take preventive or remedial action. He could have introduced routine monitoring of laying flocks, but he did not. He could have prevented the sale of eggs from flocks that were known to be contaminated, but he did not. He could have commissioned further research to gain greater understanding of the problem, but he did not. He could have closed processing plants that were known by him to be producing contaminated feedstuffs, but he did not. Nor did he prosecute persistent offenders as the law empowered him to do.
The Select Committee stated:It is a severe criticism of MAFF that a public health problem in eggs was required before they saw fit to act".That is the conclusion that I invite the House to endorse. The Select Committee report concluded:We welcome those steps which the Government has taken during the course of our inquiry and expect that, with full implementation of the above recommendations, public confidence can be restored in the safety and purity of eggs.I hope that it can be. I must say, however, that I place rather less faith in the Government's proclamation than does the Select Committee.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
Would my hon. Friend accept that the steps taken by the Government have been directed exclusively at poultry farmers? The manufacturers of poultry farming equipment have suffered grave losses and a lack of orders and are facing 834 redundancies, yet the Government have consistently refused to do anything for that industry, which they have damaged in addition to the poultry farmers.
§ Mr. Davies
Yes. My hon. Friend mentions the consequences on manufacturing industry, which might be a constituency matter, resulting from the recession in the poultry industry. Far be it from me to encourage others to litigate, but I believe that legal cases are outstanding against the former Health Minister.
§ Mr. Davies
I agree with my hon. Friend. I assure him that if the roles were reversed and I was standing at the other Dispatch Box and my hon. Friend was in his usual place below the Gangway, I should invite him to the Ministry in Whitehall place first thing tomorrow morning. I should say to him, as I am wont to do in these matters, "Bob, you just come along to the MAFF office at 9 o'clock in the morning and present that case to me, tell me how your constituents are suffering and what you expect me to do and I guarantee that the full resources of the Whitehall machine will swing into action behind your interests." I invite my hon. Friend to test the Minister when he replies to the debate to see whether he gets the reply that he now knows he would get from me if I were the Minister and not: a member of the Opposition.
The Minister never fails to trumpet the 17 initiatives that have emerged from that hive of activity which passes for a MAFF press office in Whitehall place. If there was one note of discord, it was heard earlier in the debate when my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields was. challenging the Minister about the effectiveness of those 17 measures.
For the sake of accuracy, let us put the Government's position on record. They recognised the problem in December and said that they would introduce a financial rescue package to put a floor under the egg industry. That has worked and we have all commended the Government for it. But then they said that it could never happen again. They said that they would introduce a package. MAFF said so in early December. By a process of planted parliamentary questions, statements to the House and speeches in debates on this and other occasions, various spokesmen for the Ministry as well as their glossy press handouts have all said, "We have acted—we have introduced 17 new measures that will all fit together to ensure that all sectors of the poultry industry, from the processors of protein to the millers of food, to the breeders of laying flocks and those who are responsible for egg production, right down to the packers and those who guarantee the freshness of deliveries to the door will be tightly regulated and never again will the problem of salmonella occur." The Minister has stated that clearly and unambiguously in parliamentary answers and press releases. When he was challenged earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields he was happy to jump up and say, "We have the 17 initiatives, we have acted, what more can you expect." He flapped his wings but he did not quite take off.
On 18 January and again on 3 March, in reply to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, the Minister listed his comprehensive programme for action, being his Department's response to the salmonella in eggs affair. The details were less impressive than the presentation would have us believe.
835 The 17 measures included five guidelines, being voluntary codes of practice, for producers. Last year, statutory codes regulating the rendering of protein feedstuffs were in force. On several occasions Ministry inspections revealed that they were producing and distributing salmonella-infested faeces. On many occasions those plants were reinspected, but nothing was done. On a third inspection, 50 per cent. of those reinspected were found still to be producing infected feedstuffs.
The Ministry is empowered to prosecute. The regulations do not say that the Ministry should send an ADAS adviser for a quiet chat. They do not say that the Ministry shall simply advise. We hope that the Ministry will advise in advance, to prevent a problem arising in the first place, and I appreciate that a prosecution might not be undertaken in the first instance. But those concerned must be told, "People are dying from salmonella poisoning. A whole industry has been threatened by your actions. If we come back a second time and you are still producing infected feedstuffs, we will prosecute." I cannot understand how, on a third occasion, such plants could be found to be breaking the law yet there is a refusal to prosecute.
That happens with a statutory code. Now the Minister is saying that, of the 17 initiatives, five are voluntary codes. If he does not enforce a statutory code, what confidence can we have that these voluntary codes, without the backing of law, will be enforced? We can have no confidence at all.
Thus, five of the measures are merely guidelines. Five are orders, but they will have statutory force. We are now well into March and there is no sign yet of those orders. They have not yet been laid before Parliament. All the intitiatives of which the Minister has spoken and all the information that he has been trailing, through planted questions—and all the information that he gave to the Select Committee about these brave initiatives—have yet to appear. The five with teeth have not yet been laid.
How on earth can we, in debating the Select Committee's report, form a judgment when we do not even know what the orders will contain? It is all very well for the Minister to say, "We shall introduce orders to do this or that," but we are entitled to reserve our judgment until we see them and find out if they get the approval of Parliament. Until the orders have been debated and we have been able to assess their efficacy—indeed, until we know whether they have the approval of Parliament—we cannot assess their worth.
Of the 17 new initiatives, therefore, five are voluntary codes and five are orders which have not yet been laid before Parliament. It is not an impressive record, and it does not get better. Three of the 17 initiatives are changes in administrative procedures. The Government of the day have been empowered since 1975 to make such changes. Throughout the 1980s, when the problem of salmonella was building up—and critically last year, when the Government were receiving all the information from their advisers about the build-up of salmonella, about the 17,000 who had become ill and about people dying—the Government, and in particular the Minister, had no need to wait for a junior Minister at the Department of Health to blow the gaffe.
836 The Government did not have to wait for the floor to fall through the industry or for warnings from any of the independent bodies that have been maligned in this debate. They had the powers to act—by the stroke of a pen. Without recourse to Parliament they could have taken action.
The 17 measures are not adding up to much: five voluntary codes, five orders not laid, and three administrative measures that could have been taken previously. In addition, one order was in force in February, and one campaign has been launched to educate the public in the hygienic handling of food. That is not bad—we have got one out of 15 so far. The more observant of my hon. Friends will recall that we are dealing with 17 initiatives, not 15. That leaves two that still have to be accounted for.
Every day for the past week I have been to the Vote Office asking for a copy of the Zoonoses Order—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover asks, "What is that?" [Laughter.] That is what I heard, and I know that my hon. Friend would deprecate any suggestion that we should use anything but the most proper language. I asked the Vote Office for a copy of the Zoonoses Order; I asked the Library for a copy; I asked the Minister's own press department for a copy. They all said, "We do not know what the Zoonoses Order is."[Interruption.] Yes, that is what they said. Actually, they said, "We would like to give it to you, Mr. Davies, but we do not know what it is."
Just before this debate I was fortunate, through a friend who is also a friend of the Minister, to obtain a photocopy of the Zoonoses Order 1989, No. 285, which is not available to any other Member of the House or, incidentally, to the poultry industry which is supposed to be applying it. Apparently the order was made on 28 February, to come into force on 1 March. If we were charitable and assumed that the one-day debate did not reflect any degree of urgency on the Minister's part, if we were charitable and assumed that the Ministry actually knew what it was doing and had laid these orders as part of a carefully programmed campaign, we could believe what we have been told. The fact of the matter is that the Zoonoses Order 1989, No. 285, is not required; the Ministry already has power, under the 1975 legislation, to implement what it is now legislating for.
If we were to have any confidence in the Ministry's handling of the situation, if we were to believe that the Minister had learnt the lessons of the events of 1988, we could reasonably expect the 17 initiatives announced by the Ministry to amount to a little more than a few promises and one botched order that the people responsible for implementing it have not yet even received. So much for the Minister's much-vaunted 17-point initiative. That order—the only one with teeth—has not yet been tabled. It was supposed to be implemented on 1 March—a week ago—but it has not yet been tabled. Copies are not available, and no one in the poultry industry has yet had sight of it.
Hon. Members on the Government side are shaking their heads as if to suggest that what I am saying could not be true. I invite them—[Interruption.] If they are so unconcerned about these matters, it would be understandable that they should not appear for agriculture debates, but if they have come along to lend support to the Minister I should have thought they would at least have satisfied themselves as to the credibility of what the Minister is 837 doing on their behalf. I challenge them, so that they may so satisfy themselves, to go to the Vote Office—if they have sufficient confidence in their own Minister, if they believe in these 17 initiatives—and ask for a copy of the order. If they will not do so, we can only conclude that they assume that MAFF has not yet learnt the lessons of 1988.
If there is one conclusion to be drawn from this debate and from the Select Committee's report, it is not about the vanity of one junior Minister in the Department of Health, or even about the rivalry of two senior Ministers in the Department of Health and in the Ministry of Agriculture. It is about the inability of a great Department of state to respond to the conflicting pressures of producers and consumers. That presents a challenge to the Government. It is a challenge that they, and they alone, must meet because the health of the British consumer is at stake.
§ Mr. Ryder
With the leave of the House, may I say that I greatly enjoyed the brief exchange between the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) and the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) when they were considering together the prospect of a future Labour Government in which the hon. Member for Caerphilly was a Minister and the hon. Member for Bradford, South was not. It is inconceivable that if a Labour Government were elected the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Bradford, South would not be part of that Administration. I can see it now—Foreign Secretary, the hon. Member for Bolsover, the man who has never travelled abroad up to now. On second thoughts, it would be the hon. Member for Bradford, South who would be Foreign Secretary. After all, he has great experience of representing people in two Parliaments.
I have greatly enjoyed the debate. It has fully matched the fluency and clarity of the report by the Select Committee. I have already spoken in the debate. It is unusual for the same Minister to speak twice on an Estimates day, so I shall be brief.
At the start of the debate I stressed that I was not giving the Government's official response to the report. That will come later and doubtless there will be future opportunities to debate the question. We have heard well-informed and perceptive speeches from several of my right hon. and hon. Friends, including my hon. Friends the Members for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland), for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller), for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen). We had a balanced and authoritative opening speech from the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). I have also been struck by the obvious interest and knowledge of several Opposition Members. The Select Committee is fortunate to have them as members.
The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and the hon. Member for Caerphilly queried that 17 measures, already announced by the Government, have been introduced. The hon. Member for South Shields alleged originally that only two of those measures had been introduced. In an intervention I pointed out to him that that was not the case. We have introduced far more. Some are still to come, but I read out to him at least five or six 838 that we have introduced, and there are others. If he will put down a series of questions I shall be delighted to set out in detail precisely what we have done.
The hon. Member for South Shields was concerned about eggs that were allowed to enter the food chain from farms implicated in food poisoning outbreaks. I understand his concern. However, the position is not straightforward. In some cases the link between a farm and food poisoning was unclear. In others the owner followed the state veterinary service's advice to improve hygiene and reduce the risk of salmonella. Some slaughtered their flocks voluntarily and in some cases subsequent bacteriological examination yielded negative results.
Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton, were concerned about imports. The port health authorities are sampling imported eggs. I understand that up to now they have all proved to be negative. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry observed, such sampling is difficult. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton recognised in his informative speech, salmonella enteritidis phage 4 is an international problem and must be tackled at source on an international basis. That is why, as a Government, we welcomed the establishment by the EEC standing veterinary committee on 7 December of a sub-committee to look into this specific issue. My right hon. Friend the Minister has also initiated bilateral discussions with our EEC partners as well as with our United States counterparts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry inquired about eggs from broiler breeder flocks. If we had reason to believe that there was a problem in a broiler breeder flock, and eggs were being sold from that flock for human consumption, we would, of course, put restrictions on the flock to prevent the sale of eggs for human consumption.
The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who is not in his place, mentioned that the chief medical officer said in his evidence to the Select Committee that the level of contamination of eggs from Spain was between one in 100 and one in 1,000 and that, therefore, there was a risk to us from importing Spanish eggs. I understand that the chief medical officer was quoting an article from the Lancet that reported the levels detected in one or two flocks in Spain. We do not know whether that data is representative of Spanish flocks or eggs as a whole.
The hon. Member for Carlisle asked, too, about the proportion of food poisoning cases resulting from people returning from overseas. I understand that up to October that was 14 per cent. in 1988.
The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), whose contributions to these debates I always enjoy, talked about the relative merits of free-range versus battery eggs. As I believe the hon. Gentleman knows, there is no conclusive evidence to show that one system is any safer than the other.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove inquired about restrictions. Each case will be treated on its merits. Ministry veterinary surgeons will sample where salmonella infection is suspected on a house-by-house basis. If any birds in one house prove positive, all birds in that house will be slaughtered. If none is positive, none will be slaughtered. The veterinary surgeons will envisage killing out an entire farm only if all the birds are together in a single flock or if each separate house is found to contain infected birds.
839 The hon. Member for Caerphilly enjoyed himself, as he always does, when making his reply and teased us about the Zoonoses Order of 1989. I shall clarify matters for him, because he seemed uncertain about the nature of the order. Ministers have signed an order which came into effect on 1 March providing for compulsory slaughter and compensation where salmonella infection is confirmed in a poultry flock. As well as providing new powers, the Zoonoses Order of 1989 re-enacts the Zoonoses Order of 1975 and strengthens the requirements to report the results of tests that identify the presence of salmonella. The reporting requirement applies to any identification of a salmonella organism by a serological or any other examination either in a laboratory or elsewhere.
§ Mr. Ron Davies
I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that that order has now been implemented. Will the Minister tell us when he intends letting us have a copy?
§ Mr. Ryder
If the hon. Gentleman has had any difficulty in obtaining a copy, I shall gladly take the first opportunity to put that matter right.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and the members of his Committee for providing a clear and fluent report that has enabled us to hold such a constructive debate. I look forward to hearing his concluding remarks.
§ Mr. Wiggin
With the permission of the House, Mr. Speaker, I understand that it is customary for there to be a very brief winding-up speech by the proposer of the business on a day such as this. I start by thanking all hon. Members for their kind remarks, which I take as very much a tribute to all the members of the Select Committee who contributed to the report.
I have considerable sympathy for my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary concerning his remarks on the subject of secrecy in relation to food safety. The very thin dividing line between sensible caution and starting a scare poses a hard problem for him. Whatever happened on this occasion, it was not done properly and I hope that the lessons are seriously learned. He also mentioned the interesting problem of appointing to various committees the professional consumer. I hope that he will be very cautious before going too far down that road. We are all consumers and the concept that on every committee there has to be a consumer rather troubles me.
I hope that my hon. Friend and the hon. Members for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) will forgive me if I treat their exchanges on governmental and Opposition lines as being just that and, in my capacity as Chairman of the Select Committee, leave them to settle their differences.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen)—I have to say how much nicer his constituency sounded when it was called Oswestry—unquestionably made one of the outstanding speeches of the afternoon. He pointed out that the Select Committee, as it progressed, had helped to establish parameters for all Select Committees in all their activities in the future. I am grateful for that acknowledgement. He also used the most splendidly delicate words in criticising his colleagues. I 840 hope that if I ever have to be criticised it will be by him, since no one uses the English language better or to greater effect.
§ Mr. Wiggin
He rightly concluded his remarks by pointing out that laws on the safety of food and feeding stuffs must be enforceable and must be enforced.
The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who is, I know, an expert on birds—indeed, we have enjoyed his knowledge and company on foreign travel, when he has entertained us greatly with his deep knowledge—touched on the very difficult question of free-range eggs and batteries. I refrained from interrupting him, but I have to point out that there is no way in which human beings can adjudge the happiness or otherwise of the hen except by the very reasonable indicator of how many eggs it lays. Anyone who has ever studied this matter will find that, amazing as it may seem to us, the battery hen in its controlled environment produces rather more eggs than are produced by most other methods. However, it is not the job of the Select Committee to adjudge this most tricky matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller) was almost alone in his criticism of the Select Committee report, although my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), who unfortunately has just left the Chamber, also voiced on Thursday some critical comments. I have to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove that his attempts to cross-quote my remarks during the time that I was Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture were rather fruitless in that all his quotations were from things said before the discovery, or even the start, of this particular problem of enteritidis in chickens, which did not start until at least 12 months after I left the Ministry. I am particularly sorry about his changed view, since his earlier, rather enthusiastic support for poultry producers seems to have vanished.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) made some particularly kind personal remarks, which I much appreciated.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), who has been a most assiduous supporter and attender of the Committee, rightly made some important comments about hygiene in the kitchen. It is a recurring theme that hygiene in the kitchen is just as important as anything that might take place on the farm or in the production chain.
The hon. Members for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) and for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald), who are all members of the Select Committee, represent a new and extremely energetic entry on the Opposition Benches. I respect their political comprehension and am acutely aware of it because they helped to maintain an important balance on the Committee. I congratulate them on their assiduity, and I am sure that, shortly, they will all be Front Benchers.
In his—as usual—learned dissertation, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) mentioned the problems that will come for producers if animal health restrictions are imposed and no compensation is given. If that were to happen, farmers, producers and advisers would not come forward voluntarily to report disease, so 841 it would be passed on. I accept that point. I was pleased about my hon. Friend's appointment to the Agricultural and Food Research Council, to which I am sure he will make a great contribution. He will also help our contacts with it.
In his usual enthusiastic way, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) praised the intervention scheme—although I suspect that his remarks will prove as fatal for the microwave oven industry as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) were for the egg industry. If he finds that at his meeting in the Forest of Dean he encounters a number of Japanese gentlemen protesting about what he said, it will be his own fault.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), who is always an expert on constitutional and procedural matters, referred us to the Standing Orders on the referral of Members to appear before Select Committees. May I remind him that the Standing Order that might have been invoked on this matter was passed in about 1688. He wondered whether an hon. Member, appearing as a witness before a Select Committee, had to say or contribute anything, but, happily, the sanctions that existed in 1688 no longer exist. I wonder whether he has pursued the matter to its intellectual end. When Sir Leon Brittan appeared before the Select Committee on Defence in similar circumstances, he refused to answer many questions without having sanctions imposed on him.
As to the remark of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton that women's institutes would read the Committee's report with interest—the mind boggles. One imagines that, after tea and the singing of Jerusalem, the president would read excerpts from the Select Committee 842 report about salmonella in eggs. I think that things in Devonshire are different from those in my part of the world.
The hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) rightly made some valid points about the suffering of producers in Northern Ireland, despite the fact that they have a clean bill of health.
With his usual assiduity and fresh approach, my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) discussed the political executive interplay in an interesting speech which I am sure will be carefully studied by Ministers. The press department of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is unlikely to be as wide awake on Saturday afternoons as he expects. The real world may be a little different from his suggestion.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) rightly commented on the narrow profit margins in the production of eggs. The evidence shows that that problem still prevails throughout the industry.
This has been an extremely worthwhile debate. I know that we are under pressure of time. I wish that we could have these debates more often. At the end of a fairly lengthy, and yet energetic investigation, it is helpful to be able to debate such matters on the Floor of the House without the constraints of secrecy entailed in the preparation of a report, and to receive valuable contributions from hon. Members who are not on the Select Committee.
With an important festival—associated with traditional fare—ahead, may I wish all those involved in this extraordinary matter a happy Easter?
§ The Question necessary to dispose of the proceedings was deferred, pursuant to paragraph (4) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of Estimates) and the Order /28 February].