HL Deb 15 June 1976 vol 371 cc1173-7

6.24 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill he read a second time. The Bill is a Private Member's Bill. It was introduced in another place by the Member for Brighton, Kemptown, Mr. Andrew Bowden. It has a trouble-free passage in another place. Indeed, it was welcomed on all sides and I hope that your Lordships in turn will be able to give it an equally warm welcome here. It is quite a small and simple Bill. Nevertheless, it is an important one. It has one objective. It seeks to close a loophole in the law by which premises which may be in a filthy state can nevertheless continue to sell food to the public. On the whole, the catering trade has a very high standard and I am sure that the Bill will be welcomed by the trade as it will affect only a very few recalcitrant members of the trade and will improve the reputation of the trade as a whole.

The Bill gives the environmental health officer an additional weapon to take quick action against the very few people who run filthy, unhygienic restaurants or who sell food from premises which arc so unclean as to be a danger to public health. Mercifully, there are not many of them, but there are some. As an example, I give the case where an environmental health officer went into an establishment and found the floor filthy with, among other things, the droppings of vermin. He opened a refrigerator and a cockroach jumped out at him, and the bottles of soda water and other soft drinks which were on the shelves had the tops rusted on to them, not by water but by the urine of rats and mice. I am quite certain that your Lordships will agree that food should not continue to be sold from premises such as that.

At present, an environmental health officer who finds such a state of affairs can issue a stack of summonses against the proprietor, but the practice of the courts is such that there may he a delay of six or even 12 weeks before the case is heard and it is only after a successful prosecution that a court order can be obtained to close down the premises. So, from the time when the inspector first found the filthy premises to the time when the prosecution is obtained—and, as I say, that could be up to 12 weeks—the owner of the premises could continue to sell food to the public with an attendant health hazard and no one can stop it. On top of this, the operator, on receiving a summons, can at present quite legally transfer the premises into somebody else's name. He might possibly transfer it into his wife's name and the business can continue in the same way until yet another prosecution is brought.

So the Bill seeks to make a few simple but specific alterations to the law. First, the Bill is directed to premises, not proprietors. Although it is the proprietor who may he prosecuted for keeping a disgusting kitchen, it is the premises which may he closed, irrespective of who is the proprietor. Secondly, the Bill refers to all premises which sell food, including butchers, market stalls, greengrocers, cafés, grocers' shops, hotels and so on. It does not refer simply to restaurants. Thirdly, the procedure for terminating a closure order is simplified. At present, a closure order, when it is applied to some premises found to he in a filthy state, lasts for six months and the proprietor must apply to the court to be allowed to reopen his premises. Under the provisions of the present Bill, the closure order must specify the points which must he remedied in order to make the place fit to sell food from it again. Once the proprietor has satisfied the environmental health officer that he has remedied the defects, he may get a certificate from the local authority to permit him to reopen the premises and he does not have to go back to the court for that permission. So this should simplify the courts' procedures.

However, the real power in the Bill comes in Clause 2, which enables the environmental health officer to apply to the magistrates for an emergency order to close the premises. He has to give at least three days' notice of his intention to apply for an emergency order. If the court, on hearing the environmental health officer's view, grants that order the premises will be closed down forthwith. However, the fact that the officer must give at least three days' clear notice of his intention to apply will give the proprietor time to remedy the defect, and it is anticipated that in the vast majority of cases the defects will he remedied within the three days and before the application ever gets to the court. This is the vital part of this provision because it is in fact a deterrent.

What in effect the environmental health officer will be saying is, " Your kitchen is foul, or your store cupboard is full of cockroaches, and if you do not clean it up within three days, I will apply to the court for your premises to be closed—and to be closed immediately—and the premises will remain closed until such time as you have put right that which is 'wrong." Your Lordships may he thinking that the more enthusiastic environmental health officers might go around slapping emergency closure orders on all premises, even in those cases where there are doubts, and so I should refer to one important limitation which might curb such officers. The limitation is that the emergency order for closing can be applied for only if legal proceedings for 'prosecution for an offence under the Food and Hygiene regulations have already been initiated. In other words, the condition of the premises has to he so bad that the proprietor is to be prosecuted for breaking the regulations before the environmental health officer can say, " And what is more, the condition of the premises is so bad and so insanitary as to constitute an immediate risk or danger to health, and so will the court please close down the premises forthwith? "

The only other point to which I should draw your Lordships' attention is that the same provisions also apply to ships, boats and pleasure craft, on which a food business is carried on, which are moored on, or which go on, inland waterways, which have trips not exceeding 24 hours, and which do not go abroad. This covers, for example, boats which go up and down the Thames carrying day trippers and boats which leave ports to go around the coasts, with day trippers. Not for one moment do I suggest that these boats are at all likely candidates for action under the Bill; it is merely the case that the provisions of the Bill cover those vessels as well as ordinary premises. But of course the Bill does not cover ocean going or naval vessels.

There are one or two local government Acts which provide to local areas similar protection to that which is given in the Bill. These areas include the London boroughs, Derby, Port Talbot, Rhondda, Salford, and others. This Bill gives to the whole country the protection which these areas enjoy under local Acts. I hope that I have given your Lordships sufficient indication of the reasons which have prompted the introduction of the Bill, as well as sufficient explanation of its contents. I hope that your Lordships will agree that this Bill will help to protect the public from the very few premises which purvey food from unhygienic places, and I hope, too, that your Lordships will welcome the Bill and give it your approval. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Earl Ferrers.)

6.34 p.m.


My Lords, as we have come to expect, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has put this matter very clearly and very simply, and so no one can be in any doubt at all as to what the Bill seeks to do. Therefore, I propose to say only a few words about it. I had come prepared to spend some time in explaining it in some detail, but that is no longer necessary. I want to make clear the Government's attitude towards the Bill, which is that they give it wholehearted support and hope that it will reach the Statute Book this Session. The noble Earl pointed out that there are certain defects in the Drugs Act 1955. He listed them. I may not have heard one of those which he mentioned, but it is important to remember that the Bill will deal also with " take-away " food shops, and many of us regard this as very important.

I do not want to detain your Lordships unnecessarily, but one point about the Bill that I must make is that the Government do not envisage any increase in public or local authority expenditure or in local authority staff as a direct consequence of the Bill. The Government think that this is a very vital and necessary measure, and they ask your Lordships to give it a Second Reading.

6.36 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord WellsPestell, for having given the Government's wholehearted approval in an even more succinct fashion than that in which I was able to describe the Bill. The noble Lord is entirely right—the Bill covers " takeaway " food, as well as all barrow stalls. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord say that he did not anticipate any increase in Government or local authority expenditure as a consequence of the Bill, and that alone must commend itself to everyone on all sides of both Houses of Parliament. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his welcome to the Bill and to his Department, too, for the help they have given myself and others in regard to details of the Bill. I hope that your Lordships will give the Bill your approval.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.