HL Deb 20 October 1966 vol 277 cc184-96

6.35 p.m.

LORD NUGENT OF GUILDFORD rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Food Hygiene (Markets, Stalls and Delivery Vehicles) Regulations 1966, laid before the House on 7th July 1966, be annulled. The noble Lord said: My Lords. I beg to move the Prayer standing in my name on the Order Paper. I am sorry to have to trouble your Lordships with this Prayer this evening, and I do so only because the Order before your Lordships as laid is wrong and unenforceable in many respects. Indeed, the Minister has admitted this in letters to me and to the trade associations. Despite the Minister's admission, he and indeed noble Lords opposite are still asking Parliament to approve the Order on the undertaking given in the Minister's letter to me that he will lay an amending Order in time to come into effect with this substantive Order on January 1, 1967. I feel this is the wrong way to deal with a Statutory Order, and I am asking that the Minister should revoke this wrong Order and lay a new, amended Order as soon as possible.

It seems to me that there are two serious objections to approving the Order in this form. The first is the constitutional objection. It must be wrong to ask Parliament to approve Statutory Regulations known to be substantially wrong and needing amendment. This must be wrong. Parliament, when it legislates, should be certain and sure. Secondly, there is. I believe, a strong practical objection in that these Regulations will affect hundreds of thousands of traders up and down the country and, with Parliamentary approval—and after to-day this Order would become law—they become a law of the land to which everybody must conform after January 1, 1967. The Regulations carry obligations for far-reaching and expensive alterations and additions, especially to delivery vehicles.

The practical objection is that if this Order is made to-night there will be an interval of probably a couple of months before the amending Order is published, and during this time many traders may not know that they are going to be relieved of the obligations in this Order. It seems to me that the Minister's attitude really is not acceptable. The Minister has told me that in his opinion the trade associations can let all traders know that there is going to be an amending Order. But many traders are not members of any association, and in any event, is it really part of the job of a trade association to inform traders that the Minister has made an unsound Order and that they need not obey it? Suppose the Minister changes his mind. Sometimes some special circumstances arise and Ministers have to change their minds. What position would the trade association then be in, having advised its members that they could ignore the law?

I turn to the nature of the fault in the Order because I want to make the point that I believe it is a substantial and serious fault and not just negligible. The Regulations are faulty in their application to delivery vehicles. The history of the Order is unfortunate. The Order is made under the Food and Drugs Act 1955, and Section 123 of the Act requires the Minister to consult with all representative organisations before making these hygiene Orders. Accordingly, in June, 1964, two years ago, the Minister of Health of the day circulated proposals for new hygiene regulations, and sent them out to representative organisations and to the enforcing authorities. The proposals that the Minister sent out were limited to markets and stalls only; and your Lordships will observe that the Order now before you refers to markets, stalls and delivery vehicles.

I have in my hand the original proposal of 1961, which refers to markets and stalls only. The Regulations were broadly workable and acceptable, after consultation with various bodies. They were accepted—and here I should say that the trade were in favour of improved hygiene standards as we all are, whenever practicable. But when the Statutory Order now before your Lordships was published there suddenly appeared, in it, without previous mention, reference to delivery vehicles as well as to markets and stalls. This, of course, substantially extended the effect of these Hygiene Regulations. The Order appeared on June 29 this year, no consultation having taken place about the inclusion in it of delivery vehicles. The consultations which the Act requires the Minister to make were not made, and it is therefore not surprising that the new Hygiene Regulations to be applied to this vast and infinitely variable complex of food trades, have turned out to be utterly impracticable.

The Regulations in this Order as applied to delivery vehicles are, in fact, excessively expensive and virtually impracticable. In effect, they apply to all delivery vehicles, both retail and wholesale, carrying food, and the broad effect (I need not trouble your Lordships with details) is either that food must be covered—and "covered" is defined in Schedule 1 to the Order as "wrapped with mutton cloth, hessian or jute"—or the delivery vehicle must be fitted with a washbasin and a hot and cold water system. There are literally hundreds of thousands of delivery vehicles which would come within the scope of this Order. The cost of conversion to include a hot and cold water system and washbasin would run into millions of pounds and would have a significant effect in increasing the price of meat.

The Minister has now admitted that this is unnecessary and has indicated that it is proposed to introduce amendments which will secure the same effects without this extremely drastic treatment. But there are some very startling anomalies which would come under this Order as now before your Lordships. I understand that barrows are used at Smithfield Market for moving carcases. These might have to be fitted with a washbasin and a hot and cold water system. I am not sure whether the bummarees at Smithfield Market would also have to be fitted with a hot and cold water system—perhaps not, as they are not on wheels. But your Lordships will be fascinated to hear that the butcher's boy who delivers your mutton chops will also come within the range of these regulations, unless he happens to wrap your mutton chops in "mutton cloth, hessian or jute"—and your mutton chops do not often arrive thus wrapped. Presumably the butcher boy must carry on his back a washbasin and be fitted with a hot and cold water system. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Champion, who is to reply, that no doubt he will have in mind our concern about effluent yesterday and would perhaps be able to suggest where the effluent would then go.

As I say, the Minister of Health has, happily, seen the light in the last couple of weeks after urgent consultations, and is willing to move Amendments and to amend the Order in such a way as to overcome these difficulties yet still achieve the higher standard of hygiene that we all want to see. But the points I am making to your Lordships tonight are, first, that it is not right to ask Parliament to approve an Order and make it the law of the land when it is substantially wrong; and, secondly, that there is a serious practical danger that many traders might start to make these alterations during the next couple of months, in order to be ready for January 1 next year, without realising that they will not be necessary. I feel that these are substantial reasons, and I hope earnestly that the noble Lord opposite will be willing to meet my Prayer and withdraw the Order. I beg to move.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Food Hygiene (Markets, Stalls and Delivery Vehicles) Regulations 1966, laid before the House on July 7, 1966, be annuled.—(Lord Nugent of Guildford.)

6.46 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, has put his case with all the strength and force of a practised and sincere Parliamentarian. I rather expected that I should come under the lash of his tongue, and I have done so. But, of course, there is something to be said on the Government side about this subject; and that I propose to say now. It is my job to defend the Minister, and this I hope I shall be able to do and eventually to persuade the noble Lord that perhaps it would be better for all concerned if he withdrew his Motion for annulment.

Before I begin to reply to the substantial points made by the noble Lord I should like to give some explanation of the purpose of the Food Hygiene (Markets, Stall and Delivery Vehicles) Regulations 1966 and why they were made. Enforcement authorities have been pressing for some time for additional legislation to secure higher standards of food hygiene in all the different forms of outdoor trading. Part V Qt the Food Hygiene (General) Regulations 1960—the earlier Regulations in this field—imposed requirements on stalls and delivery vehicles which were much less stringent than those that applied to food premises. Clearly this was wrong; clearly this was unsatisfactory to those of us who consumed the food that might come from these stalls.

For instance, Part V requires washing facilities on catering stalls only—and your Lordships should know that a stall, by definition, includes a mobileshop—whereas all food shops and food premises must have these facilities. This was clearly wrong and shopkeepers found it difficult to understand why all mobile traders should not be required to fit these facilities which manufacturers of equipment can now readily provide. It is not surprising, therefore, that sections of the trade joined with the enforcement authorities in making representations—and these representations have, I believe, been made over a period of two successive Governments—that these higher standards should be brought in to cover all those who could, as a result of their failure to do certain things, contaminate the food that is sold to the public.

Ministers accept that Part V of the General Regulations have not achieved the improvements in food hygiene that were aimed at, not only in mobile shops but also in all the different kinds of food handling activities carried on away from fixed premises; and the Markets, Stalls and Delivery Vehicles Regulations were designed to put this right. These are the Regulations we are now discussing. These Regulations will bring the requirements for food hygiene, in the activities they cover, much more closely in line with those that apply to premises. Probably the most significant changes are those that require stalls and delivery vehicles that sell or carry open food to have washing facilities. Perhaps I should here hasten to add that the noble Lord's remarks about the butcher's boy were, in fact, nonsense. The butcher's boy would not need to have these facilities, even under the Regulations as unamended, because the food he would be carrying would be wrapped in the conventional and accepted materials. But I admit that it was a nice point to have made, although it has no substance.

Dirty hands and dirty equipment mean dirty food, and it is not reasonable to expect a food handler to keep himself and his equipment clean unless he has adequate facilities for washing close at hand. It is important that there should be clean hands handling raw material which eventually we have to eat, particularly substances like meat, which must be handled in a clean manner. If my butcher's boy came with meat not adequately and properly wrapped, I know what I should tell him to do with it, and I am sure that my wife would do the same. She would probably slap him in the face with it for having dared to come to my house with meat in that state.

The original proposals which Ministers put forward for the Regulations still exempted a delivery vehicle, whether it carried open food or not, from the requirement to carry washing facilities, but a change was made later to limit the exemption, which is contained in the present Regulation 24(3), to delivery vehicles that carry only covered food. The change was introduced as a result of a meeting with an organisation representing a wide cross-section of trade interests, which drew attention to the distinction the proposals made between the straightforward delivery vehicle that carried open food and the vehicle supplying retail shops with open food driven by a driver/salesman. Their view was that the hygiene risk was virtually the same in both cases, but whereas the proposals would have required a driver/ salesman's vehicle to carry the facilities, the ordinary delivery vehicle would have been exempted. The organisation, whose object was to secure the exemption of both classes of vehicle, were told that all these vehicles should certainly he treated in the same way, but that the requirements of hygiene would mean that neither class should be exempt. At this stage further consultation with interested parties could have taken place, but it was thought that the views of the Association would be likely to represent those of the trade at large, and so no further consultations were made.

I am here coming to the gravamen of the charge made by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford. It is now very clear that some other trade interests would have been able to help at this stage, and with the benefit of hindsight it is easy to say now that they should have been consulted. It is a pity that their views were not then obtained, and the Minister has apologised accordingly, which means that I, representing the Government in this House, am standing here clothed in a white sheet and admitting the error of the Minister to the House. If someone says that I look well in it, I shall be happy. Someone has suggested sackcloth and ashes, but I will not accept that—I wash my hands of it.

The National Federation of Meat Traders' Associations and some other interests, nearly all concerned with the meat trade, have protested about this lack of further consultation, and they are particularly concerned about the effect of the present Regulation 24(3). They have represented that where delivery vehicles operate between premises where adequate sanitary facilities are provided, and the food is handled on the vehicle only for loading and unloading, it is unnecessary for the vehicle to carry the facilities.

Immediately their representations were received a meeting was arranged with officials in accordance with a long-established practice to maintain close working arrangements with all the trade interests. Within a week or so of the meeting the organisations were told that Ministers had accepted that hygienic standards would be adequately safeguarded in the circumstances described by the Federation; and proposals to amend the Regulations were immediately circulated to all interested parties for comment. Another proposal from the Federation to amend slightly the definition of "container" was also accepted. Ministers are grateful to the Federation for drawing attention to a too stringent requirement before the Regulations come into operation.

This debate has been very much concerned with the effects of new food hygiene requirements on the meat trade. I should like therefore to take the opportunity to urge all those concerned with the trade to be constantly on guard to protect meat and meat products against contamination. Unfortunately, meat and meat products continue to be the major source of food poisoning incidents. The report of the Public Health Laboratory Service on food poisoning in England and Wales in 1965, which was published last month, shows that meat products were associated with 74 of the 84 outbreaks in which a particular food was incriminated. The organisms concerned are mostly salmonellae and Clostridium welchii. An outbreak associated with the latter usually affects more people and it is somewhat significant that food poisoning in cases due to this organism increased by almost a thousand compared with 1964. Clostridium welchii is, therefore, a particular hazard in the case of meat and meat products. Carcase meat is known to carry the organism, which is resistant to heat and may survive cooking.

I turn now to the main point that the noble Lord has made: that is, how the proposed changes in the Regulations can best be effected. It is the view of Ministers that the most satisfactory way is to make amending Regulations to come into operation at the same time as the principal Regulations; that is, on January 1 next. It is possible, as the noble Lord suggests, to withdraw the Regulations and to begin all over again by issuing for comment draft proposals incorporating the proposed amendments. But Ministers would then have to make revoking Regulations and, under the procedure laid down in Section 123 of the Food and Drugs Act 1955, they would be required to consult interested organisations before they made the Regulations. The enforcement authorities, who welcome the Regulations as they stand, and who have been pressing for higher standards, would object strongly.

My Lords, we have looked at this very carefully and have considered taking back these Regulations and starting all over again. We have come to the conclusion that this would involve a six-month delay for the commencement of the new Regulations which would have to be laid. This would mean a deferment until about July 1 next year, which is a delay of something like six months, and we think that this would be wrong. Your Lordships should know, too, that the Regulations, in the main, have the backing of the trade; and they received the endorsement of the Food Hygiene Advisory Council which advises Ministers on these matters. The discussions with the different interests before the Regulations were made stretched over a period of nearly two years. If they were now withdrawn, months would elapse before new Regulations could be made, and it would be a great pity to put off still further worthwhile provisions to safeguard the hygiene of our food. Already, by January 1 next, nearly six months will have elapsed since the Regulations were made.

The trade associations, including those which have made the representations, know of the proposed changes and so do the local authority associations and the associations that represent their officers. The trade associations can be expected, despite what has been said by the noble Lord, to publicise the proposals in the trade Press or otherwise to inform their members; and, on the enforcement side, the journals that the local authority officers take can also be expected to give publicity to the proposals. I find it hard to accept, therefore, that traders will not be aware of what is afoot, or to accept that they will be prejudiced in any way if the principal Regulations are allowed to stand. The Regulations represent an obvious and important step forward from the 1960 Regulations. Moreover, the proposed amendments, which the noble Lord will see in due course and which will, as I said, come into force on the same day as these, will meet the main representations of the National Federation of Meat Traders' Associations.

The noble Lord opposite has put on the Order Paper a Prayer to annul these Regulations. This is serious. I do not know whether or not he is going to press this Motion. But what has the House to decide? It has to decide whether the improvement deemed necessary by responsible bodies interested in food hygiene shall be held up for an estimated six months or more in the interests of legislative tidiness—because this is what it amounts to—or whether we can take a further step on January 1 next towards ensuring the cleanliness and safety of our food supplies, at the risk of being accused of consenting to some untidiness in our legislation.

I have no hesitation about how I am going to advise your Lordships on this. I advise the House to accept the course the Government are proposing, for if, by taking one more step towards greater food cleanliness, we manage to avoid just one outbreak of food poisoning, a little administrative or Parliamentary untidiness will be more than worth while. This is what matters. I came here in a white sheet. After all, we ought to know what this means. If the House accepts the proposal which the noble Lord is putting before us, if we do decide to vote to-night, and if, by the majority which noble Lords opposite happen to have, the House votes with the noble Lord opposite, then the noble Lord and the House, and not the Government whose representative I happen to be, must take the responsibility. Having said all this, and giving an answer which I think is the only possible and right answer to the noble Lord in the circumstances, I sincerely trust that he will do what I expect him, as a reasonable and sensible politician, to do—that is, withdraw this Motion for annulment which is now before the House.


My Lords, the Minister has spoken with great forcefulness, at any rate in his penultimate paragraph. I think that it would be fair comment to say that if this matter is dealt with in the way the Minister has suggested, these amending Regulations will be quite meaningless by themselves, because they will be by reference to the present Regulations, and anyone who wishes to know what the law of England is on this subject will have to purchase two Statutory Instruments, instead of one, in order to find out.


My Lords, I accent that completely, and I apologise for the fact that I have not done so in my speech. I regret this, but I sincerely hope that the additional cost will not cause anybody to go "broke".

7.6 p.m.


My Lords, I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Champion, for his clear exposition of the Order and his account of how the present situation came about. I must also thank him for appearing in a white sheet. I am disappointed that he did not appear wrapped in mutton cloth, according to the Regulation, although hessian or jute would have done. I thank him for discussing the various points that I raised.

Let me say immediately, on the point he made earlier, that mobile shops are not in dispute. They are covered by the original proposals and there is no problem about them. Clearly, they must have the sanitary facilities. I am not going to allow the noble Lord to get away completely with writing off my reference to the butcher's boy as nonsense, because in fact the lawyers of the trade federations took the view that I expressed: that the Regulations as drafted do apply to all retail delivery vehicles unless the food is covered, and that is defined in the Regulations as they now stand.

The Regulation has a very tight definition of what is a container. The noble Lord will know that this point has been substantially met, to remove the anxieties of the trade, by adding in the definition of container the word "package", which, in the view of the trade, will go far enough to satisfy the courts. Where the retail trade is concerned, meat or the like which is covered with greaseproof paper is covered for the purpose of the Regulations, but as they now stand, unless their food is covered according to the definition in the Act—that is, with mutton cloth, hessian or jute—they require that all delivery vehicles have the sanitary facilities I have mentioned. We need not argue about it, because this is the view which I think the courts would probably have taken.

Let me now come to the major point which the Minister made about the delay. I consider this is an important point. The noble Lord has told us that if he has to revoke this Order and lay a complete new Order—that is, this Order amended with the amending Order he is proposing to bring in—it would involve a six months' delay in the introduction of these new hygiene Regulations, which, as I have said, I want to see as much as anybody else. But I want them to be right. I find it very hard to believe that it would really take so long as six months.

Look at the programme for making the amending Regulations, which will deal with these anomalies regarding delivery vehicles which have been agreed upon. The Minister expects that these amending Regulations, with the consultations with everybody, can be made by Christmas of this year—that is to say, within the next couple of months. Accepting that this is on a narrower front, I find it difficult to believe that it would take six months if a new Order was laid and consultations therefore had to cover the whole field. After all, this field is settled.

However, that is what the noble Lord has told us. Certainly my noble friends and I should not wish to hold up desirable hygiene Regulations, nor should we wish to divide the House on a largely procedural point, though it has practical implications. Therefore I feel that I should advise your Lordships to accept the noble Lord's explanation. It seems to me—I will not say it of the noble Lord, Lord Champion, because I am sure that he would never be in an administrative muddle—that his colleagues in another place have undoubtedly made an administrative muddle of this matter by, not making proper consultations, and thus have made an improper Order. What they are really asking us now is to help them out by agreeing to this Order, which we all know is wrong, so that they may keep to the timetable which they originally intended. We shall be generous on this side. The noble Lord, Lord Champion, has wrung out withers, but his own withers ought to be a lot more wrung than mine as a result of to-night's procedure.

I should like to make two final points. First, when the new Regulations come along, we shall look at them most critically. We shall expect that the somewhat telescoped consultations that are taking place with the trade will be thorough, although they have to be done quickly. We shall look at the new Regulations to satisfy ourselves that they are right, and we will pray against them if they are not. I am sure the noble Lord will accept that we have strong moral cause to do so.

Secondly, on the question of publicity, this is no light point. The fact that we have had this short debate tonight will, I hope, get some publicity for this matter and help to inform public opinion—and by that I mean the traders concerned—that these amending Regulations are coming along. I feel that it is still the obligation of the Government to do something in this particular sphere, and I would ask the noble Lord to ask his right honourable friend the Minister of Health to take special measures to see that this is publicised over and above what the trade federations can do. I am sure that the trade federations will do their best, but there is an obligation on the Minister to make sure that everybody knows that amending Regulations are coming along.


This I will do.


I thank the noble Lord. With that assurance, I beg leave to withdraw my Prayer.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.