HC Deb 08 November 1999 vol 337 cc829-32

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 4, line 32, after ("activities") insert— ("(ba) premises, businesses or operations involved in fish farming;")

11.30 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin)

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 5 and 7.

Ms Quin

This group of amendments makes some minor clarifications to the scope of the power to carry out observations in clauses 10 and 11. It includes some important additional safeguards on the powers of entry in both clauses 11 and 14, which the Government agreed in response to concerns raised in the other place.

As to amendments Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5, at earlier stages in the House we debated the agency's need to gather representative information on food safety and related matters, subject to the limitations in the Bill and the agency's general duty to act proportionately. The amendments ensure that there are no technical gaps in the powers to carry out observations.

The amendments include a reference to fish farms alongside the existing references to food, agricultural and animal feed businesses and premises. Although it was always intended that fish farms should be covered—because, as hon. Members know, shellfish can be a high-risk product—it was necessary to put the issue beyond doubt. The amendments also clarify the fact that the samples that may be taken during observations include samples from food sources, live animals and plants. The existing text was intended to cover this, but the amendment removes any doubt.

As to amendments Nos. 3 and 7, we have always emphasised that the Bill's powers must be used reasonably and proportionately, with proper regard paid to the needs of businesses. The Bill has safeguards that provide for this, some of which were added following debate in Committee. We also gave assurances that the agency's officers would follow guidance to ensure that they behaved reasonably and followed the principles of better regulation.

Therefore, the Government were happy to accept two additional amendments from the Earl of Radnor relating to the authorisations to exercise powers of entry to undertake observations or enforcement monitoring. They provide that authorisations given to use the powers of entry may include a requirement to follow particular conditions—for example, ensuring that the necessary hygiene precautions are taken, including wearing appropriate protective clothing.

The Government have given a commitment that authorisations will, in practice, require the authorised officer to follow conditions equivalent to those already applicable to enforcement officers under code of practice 9, made under section 40 of the Food Safety Act 1990. That required officers to observe any reasonable food safety precautions that are required by the company or organisation under inspection.

The amendments strengthen the Bill's existing safeguards, and I hope that the House will welcome them.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation of the amendments. We welcome clarification of food sources and samples and the further moves in the Bill to emphasise hygiene precautions. We support that sensible measure.

However, I want to make a point about fish farming, relating not only to the fundamental question whether fish farming should be included in the Bill but to the concern expressed in another place that the Bill now refers simply to "fish farming", rather than "commercial fish farming". There are, of course, fish farms that produce fish for ornamental and amenity purposes, and not normally for food. When that concern was expressed in the other place, Baroness Hayman said that, because the Bill related to food safety, the measure obviously related only to commercial fish farms. However, having reflected on that, I hope that the Minister will give the matter a little more thought.

There is no definition of the word "food" in the Bill, because it takes the definition used in the Food Safety Act 1990. The Government have resisted further definition, but for most people food is a matter of individual perception. Although we may not want to eat certain types of fish, people in other parts of the world do. It worries me that the amendment covers any fish farm, when it could be shown that some fish species were being used for food by a particular culture—we are a multicultural society these days.

I accept that it is not the Government's intention to include within the Bill all types of fish farm, but I am concerned that the Bill does not include the description "commercial" or "fish for food" to narrow its scope to those fish farms that produce fish for human consumption.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

We welcome the amendments and the inclusion of fish farms. I understand the concern of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), but I do not know of many sects or religions that might eat koi carp. On the other hand, I do know of people who catch trout that may well have been fish-farmed earlier in their existence. It makes sense to include fish farms in the Bill.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I have a small concern about the amendment. Although I welcome the addition of fish farming to the Bill, the definition goes too far and may potentially include fish that are too young.

I understand that there are specialist breeding centres where the fish are spawned and, as small fry, are transported in tanks in their millions to the fish farms or breeding grounds. At that stage, the fish may be given foodstuffs, or canthazaxin or other chemicals. They are weighed as they begin to put on flesh and therefore become more suitable for human consumption. Of course, it is vital that they and their foodstuffs are monitored and checked, but I am not sure what would be the benefit to the Government or the Food Standards Agency of including the very earliest stages of the fish-breeding process.

That is my simple point. It is not a strong point of principle. Rather, I am not sure of the merit of including those stages in the Bill. I would be happy if the Minister could explain the logic behind that part of the definition, which, in my reading of amendment No. 2, includes those early stages of fish breeding and rearing.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

I shall briefly draw the attention of the House to amendment No. 7, and the biggest problem facing many abattoirs, which is the poor quality of the staff, many of whom have come from Spain and do not speak English very well. In an abattoir in my area, a young Spanish fellow attended the dressing of a carcase, and believing that it was that of a bullock, said that the spine should be taken out. The carcase was that of a pig. Such ignorance among many young vets who come in to make up numbers, simply because the word "vétérinaire" has been mistranslated by officials, is causing grievous problems in many abattoirs.

I receive numerous letters from abattoirs on the subject. One letter states that a study has shown that the largest single cause of meat contamination was the inspection process in the slaughterhouse. In another abattoir, the strictest enforcers of hygiene standards are the customers—the men from the supermarkets—which is as it should be. They found that the inspectors in that abattoir were not wearing clean overalls, were going from one designated zone to another and were using contaminated tools.

I welcome amendment No. 7, as it is essential that vets understand the basic principles of hygiene. I regret that some of those in abattoirs do not.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I welcome the inclusion of fish farming. For us in Scotland, fish farming by and large means salmon farming. It is an important industry employing thousands of people in rural communities, but the licensing of such farms has caused considerable consternation among our pelagic, demersal and shellfish fishing communities. It is therefore important that the quality standards that exist in the fish—generally salmon—farms are maintained at a high level, and it is right that there should be inspection of those farms.

Ms Quin

Most of the comments on this group of amendments relate to the amendment on fish farms. I thought I heard one of my colleagues unkindly suggest that some of the comments amounted to red herrings.

Fish farming is important, as my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) rightly pointed out, because of the number of fish farms and the employment that they provide for increasing numbers of people.

My understanding is that ornamental fish farms would not be covered by the provision, because the powers of entry can be used only to carry out the agency's responsibilities—that is, for food safety and other consumer interests in relation to food.

I recognise that the inclusion of fish farms has been welcomed. It makes sense that that should be specifically stated in the Bill, as hon. Members have pointed out.

The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) referred to amendment No.7. I am pleased that he welcomed the amendment, although some of his comments were curious. The people who have powers of entry must respect conditions of hygiene. It is an important issue, but some of the fears that the hon. Gentleman expressed should be covered by other parts of the Bill dealing with the agency's responsibility for training and standards of staff working in such establishments.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 5 agreed to.

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