HL Deb 14 May 1982 vol 430 cc452-64

1.27 p.m.

Lord Darling of Hillsborough

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is a Private Member's Bill. It was introduced in another place by my honourable friend the Member for Tottenham, Mr. Norman Atkinson, who deserves our thanks for using his good fortune in the sectional ballot to introduce such a useful Bill. I am afraid that not all Private Member's Bills come up to this standard.

The Bill has a somewhat limited but very important and necessary purpose. It is to provide stricter and more severe penalties for very serious offences that are set out in the Food and Drugs Act than can now be imposed. The stiffer financial penalties are obviously needed to catch up with the inflation that has gone on for the past 27 years. But while inflation on the scale that we now experience was not anticipated when the Act was introduced, neither did anyone at that time anticipate the development of the scandalous trading practices that have developed and that we now have to deal with.

The worst of these trading operations are found in the meat trade, but I hasten to add that only a small minority of meat traders are involved. The vast majority, and the food manufacturers, are as honourable and as law-abiding as any other traders in the country, and certainly nothing that I have to say can be directed against them. But it is the operations of this small minority in trafficking in unfit meat that has greatly alarmed our public health authorities, and the experience of their enforcement officers in tracking down and prosecuting offenders has shown that this Act is defective. The penalties that can be imposed on proven dangerous criminals are woefully inadequate and completely fail to be anything like a deterrent. For example, somebody who, by devious means, gets hold of a diseased cow's carcase, dresses it up and somehow gets it into the trade to be sold as prime beef is, according to the Act, committing only a petty offence. As the Act now stands, he can be tried only in a magistrates' court, and the maximum penalty that can be imposed upon him is a £100 fine or three months in prison.

The evidence we have from the environmental health officers shows that a great deal of meat which has been condemned as unfit for human consumption, or would have been condemned if the carcases had been under official scrutiny and not illegally slaughtered, is passing through the trade and is finally sold as good quality beef or good quality meat, or is manufactured and comes into the shops in pies, sausages and canned meat. The health officers estimate that at least two per cent. of all meats and meat products sold to the public is unfit for human consumption. Even if it is only two per cent., it is a lot of meat, and this widespread trade is a dangerous threat to public health.

The Bill therefore has three objectives. First, it raises the maximum fine in cases tried in magistrates' courts to £1,000 instead of the present £100. Secondly, it provides for serious cases to be heard in the Crown courts where there will be no maximum fines and up to two years' imprisonment can be imposed. So it will be up to the enforcement authorities to decide, according to the seriousness of an offence, whether it should be treated summarily or on indictment. Thirdly, it extends the present time limit for an offence to be taken before the courts from six months to three years, or in certain circumstances to one year from the offence's being found out. This extension of the time limit for prosecutions is needed because the six months' limit can easily be evaded—for example, by keeping unfit meat in cold store for six months.

Many sickening cases of the trafficking in unfit meat were recounted during the proceedings on the Bill in another place. I do not intend to repeat them here, but it is clear from all the evidence from the environmental health officers that this illegal trade is widespread. We do not know the full extent because there is no national register of successful prosecutions. We have the same problem here which the Select Committee on Hazardous Wastes had, whose report was presented to your Lordships some time ago: that, with very few exceptions, prosecutions for the illegal dumping of toxic wastes were reported only in local and provincial newspapers. We had no national assessment of the extent of what was going on, but we were convinced, from the evidence that we had from the local enforcement officers, that this was a widespread and growing problem.

I am equally convinced, again from the evidence of environmental health and trading standards officers, that this detestable trade in unfit carcases and condemned or illegally slaughtered meat is on a scale that few of us have ever contemplated. It is a highly profitable business. The people operating it somehow get hold of meat that ought to be destroyed, or is fit only perhaps for pet food, very cheaply. Eventually it is sold in the shops or sent off for manufacture at market prices. So the financial gains are enormous. The dressed up but dangerously unfit meat is usually very difficult to detect unless it comes under careful analysis, and equally difficult to trace so that it can be analysed.

The cases that we know about were unearthed by painstaking detective work by local environmental officers whose dedicated service I think deserves to be fully appreciated and recognised. We owe it to them as well as to the public to legislate for penalties which really fit the crimes that their investigations discover. They have had for too long the heartbreaking experience of successfully bringing culprits to court, often after a long, tedious and watchful inquiry, only to see a derisory fine imposed, a fine which really represents peanuts as compared with the financial gains that have resulted from those operations. Instead of deterring criminal activities, these fines are so low as to encourage illegal dealing. Even if the people are caught and prosecuted, they have very little to lose. They can, and do, quickly set up in business again and they have the cash to do it. So the activities that they have been indulging in are going to be dealt with by the Bill.

The purpose of the Bill, as I say, is to impose stricter and more commensurate penalties. But of course the Bill does not go far enough. It will, we trust, be a more powerful deterrent than the previous legislation, but we clearly need stricter controls—for example, over knackers' yards—which the reputable firms in that business would welcome. We want all meat that is graded by slaughterhouse inspectors as unfit for human consumption to be stained and perhaps sterilised. And we must more strictly ensure that, for example, horsemeat and kangaroo meat, which may be perfectly wholesome, is properly labelled and sold for what it is.

There are many other proposals for strengthening controls, inspection and so on, but all these desirable proposals are outside the scope of the Bill. I think that they can in any case be more effectively introduced in regulations, for which the Act provides. I am pleased to learn that the Ministry intends to bring in some of the regulations that are now being examined, and I hope that they will not be long delayed.

In commending the Bill, may I say that it has an impeccable pedigree. It was first mooted, as I have said, by the professional institutes of the environmental health and trading standards officers, and their concern for stricter penalties was shared by the Consumers Association and other consumers bodies. It was the Consumers Association's legal officers, Mr. Tench and Miss Duckham, who drafted the Bill which Mr. Atkinson introduced. The Ministry have supported the Bill all the way through and helped Mr. Atkinson to bring forward improving amendments. The Bill was sponsored by Members on both sides of the House in the other place. It is truly an all-Party Bill and it is supported by the reputable trade associations: the Bacon and Meat Manufacturers' Association, the Imported Meat Trade Association and other trade and consumer bodies. It had an unopposed course up to the Report stage when the Government introduced two controversial amendments setting out new defences that a person charged with an offence may plead. These amendments were not found to be acceptable in the other place and the Parliamentary Secretary withdrew them.

The Ministry, as I am sure, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will tell us later, is now engaged in a rather hurried and comprehensive consultation with about 300 various organisations to find out whether the new defences which have been proposed are what they want, in order to show whether there is substantial support for them when the amendments are reintroduced in this House. I am pretty sure what the result of this mass canvass will be, at least arithmetically. All, or most, of the trade associations will support the new defences while the consumer bodies and, I would suspect, local authorities and enforcement officers will be opposed to them. I do not know how the Ministry is going to sort out these conflicting opinions. My own view is that the Ministry should leave the defences as they are in the Act, at least for the time being, because I would agree that the defences in consumer protection, trading standards and health standards legislation need to be examined. We need to be sure that we have the right defences according to the nature of the charges made.

I cannot agree that a defence which is appropriate in a case of misleading advertising is a defence that is equally appropriate when dealing with such dangerous matters as the sale of diseased meat to the public. This has to be sorted out. Obviously the traders who become the innocent victims of conspiracies of this kind must have adequate defences; but let us discuss and properly examine this question of defences and not try to insert new defences at a late stage, without any previous discussion, into a Private Member's Bill. This is a most inappropriate course to take.

Finally, I have been told that some parts of the Bill are not quite clear to laymen, and certainly they were not quite clear to me until I obtained some better explanations. It might be useful if I skip briefly through the clauses. Clauses 1 and 3 give effect to the Bill's three objectives of stricter penalties and the extension of the time limits. The second part of Clause 3, which sets out the time limits for prosecutions based on samples of food which has been found faulty by inspectors, now carries a correction. I believe that a correction slip has been circulated with the Bill; it refers to the time limits for prosecutions based on milk samples.

Clause 2 (although it does not appear to do this) says that some minor offences shall continue to be heard summarily and not be taken to the Crown Court. These include such matters as failure to display a name and address on the side of mobile ice-cream vans and other minor offences of that kind—and it is, of course, quite proper that they should remain minor offences. Clause 4 ensures that in any regulations —for example, to strengthen the controls on the meat trade—the penalties will not be out of line with those in the Bill and may be increased by order, if this is found to be necessary, without recourse to an amending Bill. Clause 5 is needed because the original provision in the Act for penalties of obstruction has now been overtaken—or will be overtaken—by the Criminal Justice Bill which imposes a fine of £1,000 and no imprisonment for obstruction. Clause 6 also brings the Bill into line with the Criminal Justice Bill.

Clause 7 repeals a part of the Act which covered offences committed before 1956, when the Act came into force. Clause 8 should be taken with Clause 11 (including the correction of a printer's error) which says that the Bill will apply only in England and Wales, but as with the now accepted practice in dealing with Northern Ireland legislation, it will be extended there. I am told that there is nothing sinister in the omission of Scotland but that Scottish law already provides for the penalties now laid down in this Bill.

Clause 9 allows the financial penalties to be increased by order if this is found to be necessary and, again, without recourse to an amending Bill. Clause 10 says that the Bill will not be retrospective, and Clause 12 delays the coming into operation of the Act until 1st January next year. The reason for this is that Crown Court trials are more expensive than those in the lower courts, and no provision has been made for the greater expense in the present financial year. It is not expected that there will be many cases brought to court between 1st January and the end of the financial year, and so the strain on the Exchequer will not be very great. My Lords, I repeat that this is an urgently needed Bill which I hope will have your Lordships' support. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Darling of Hillsborough.)

1.46 p.m.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, I rise warmly to support this Bill on behalf of the Liberal Party, and I should also like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Darling of Hillsborough, on the comprehensive way in which he has introduced this Bill, which makes my task this afternoon much easier and allows me to speak more briefly than I might otherwise have been able to do. I should also like to join with the noble Lord, Lord Darling of Hillsborough, in expressing my thanks to the mover of the Bill in another place and for the public spirit which he showed in presenting this Bill as the result of his good fortune in the ballot.

The need for this Bill was highlighted by the publicity given last year to a scandalous case concerning the distribution of unfit meat. I will not go into the details, but it became quite clear from that case that the penalties available to the courts for dealing with such disgraceful business conduct were totally inadequate. In the course of my professional career, I have been associated with the operation of trades description Acts. These Acts are largely concerned with protecting the consumer irrespective of the marketing and advertising, et cetera, of articles. The penalties which the present Bill proposes to introduce into the Food and Drugs Act 1955 are somewhat similar to those contained in the trades description Acts. If penalties can be introduced into the trades description Acts with regard to articles, I would support even heavier penalties than those which have now been introduced into this Bill.

I would also urge upon the Government not to make it easier for persons in this kind of trade to be able to defend themselves more easily than the present Bill allows. I even feel that the scope of defences offered in this Bill to defendants in such cases are not severe enough or extensive enough. We are here dealing with the distribution of food which is unfit and therefore dangerous or potentially dangerous to the health of consumers of all ages. It seems to me that this requires heavy penalties. I agree with the noble Lord that this Bill does not go far enough.

There is one last matter that I should like to mention. As the noble Lord, Lord Darling of Hillsborough, has mentioned, this Bill does not come into operation, for administrative reasons, until the beginning of next year. I should like, therefore, to urge upon the Government, the Consumer Council and trade associations, and other associations concerned with the quality of food distribution, that the widest publicity be given to the terms of this present Bill during its procedure through these Houses of Parliament. The publication of the terms of this Bill in its present form may act as a deterrent, so that the trade of the kind we have heard of, which has prompted this Bill, can be stamped out. I am sure that the public will be reassured by the terms of this Bill that efforts are being made to stamp out this kind of trade, and I am also certain that the Bill will be welcomed by that hardworking and conscientious group of men and women, the environmental health officers in local authorities. I support the Bill very strongly.

1.52 p.m.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, I, too, welcome the introduction of the Bill by the noble Lord, Lord Darling of Hillsborough, and would like to congratulate him, if I may, on the comprehensive and convincing way in which he introduced it. I should say to your Lordships that in speaking to you I am advised on what I have to say by the Food and Drink Administrative Council, who have an interest, of course, in aspects of the Bill. I, too, agree that there is a real need for the 1955 Act to be updated in respect of penalties, as clearly these have got wildly out of date; indeed several of them still seem to be in pounds, shillings and pence. From that point of view this Bill is very necessary.

I also think that the Government were wise in another place, as the noble Lord, Lord Darling, said, to take advantage of the Bill also to update the clauses which relate to defences; it has been found over the years—after all, 1955 is a long time ago—that, excellent though the Act was considering its great age, and little amendment though it actually requires, as well as in the area of penalites it was in the area of defences available to processors and distributors that an improvement could be made. This is basically because those defences have turned out not to be strictly fair. It is a question of fairness to the trader that one is concerned about. I would hope that your Lordships would not think that this is in any sense an easing of the risk of penalties to traders; it is a question of making them fairer, fairer as shown by experience over 20 years. So it was a welcome fact that the Government tabled amendments to take care of this position in another place. I think it is very reasonable that it should have been found that the consultation, which I am sure has taken place in the past, had not apparently taken place recently, and that under those circumstances it was wise of the Government to withdraw those amendments at that stage and to set in train the inquiry with all interested parties to which the noble Lord, Lord Darling, made reference. As I understand it, the timing of that inquiry is such as to be able to produce the answer to the Government before we get stuck into the Committee stage of this Bill. I would hope that what they discover is that there is a real need for this updating of the defences to make them more fair, and I hope that they will be able to reintroduce their amendments or similar amendments into the Bill when it comes to the Committee stage.

In the event that the Government do not feel that they have enough evidence to justify this in this particular Bill, it would be my intention to introduce my own amendments on those lines, at least to test your Lordships' opinion as to whether you agree with me and with the food industry that they arc necessary. Of course, that would be very much a second-best situation, because, as I am sure we are all aware, it might have the effect, if one pressed the amendments —I am not by any means threatening that sort of thing now, because I just want to test the situation—but if one were to press them the Bill might be in jeopardy when it was returned to another place. I am very well aware of that and I would like your Lordships and the noble Lord, Lord Darling, to realise that that is something that I understand. However, this makes it even more important, if the Government are not quite sure what to do, for them to move the relevant amendments, because I would have thought that if they are the Government's amendments the jeopardy to the Bill in another place would be very much reduced. I would like my noble friend to think on those lines, not at this stage of the game but when he comes to make his judgment as to whether to go through with the amendments at a later stage. I hope he will bear in mind what I have just said. So I welcome the Bill and would hope that suitably expanded, if that is the way it works out, it gets a fair wind through all its stages in your Lordships' House.

1.57 p.m.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, it may be necessary for me to leave before this Bill receives its Second Reading, as I have a commitment in Oxford. If that is necessary, I hope the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will forgive me and that your Lordships will permit me to go. I stay because I believe that this Bill is of supreme importance to the community. Those of us who have had an opportunity of looking at it, talking to people who really know—if I can speak for others and that is always a highly dangerous thing to do—but at any rate speaking for myself, I was completely horrified to learn what was going on. It would seem that the Food and Drugs Act 1955 needs not just to be amended in the ordinary sense of the world, but to be thoroughly strengthened. As I understand the situation, the Bill now before us does precisely that.

I think, too, that it is worth bearing in mind that this Bill, unlike so many other Private Member's Bills, has behind it the undivided, unqualified support of all the major organisations, and among major organisations I include local authorities, if I say, including the Environmental Health Officers Association, that is not to suggest that they are less important, because they are the people upon whom falls the responsibility to enforce the law.

My Lords, having regard to what is happening at the present time in this racket, which is getting worse and worse as the years go by, this Bill is supremely important and has considerable significance so far as the community is concerned. For many years now we have had unloaded on the market a considerable amount of unfit meat. My noble friend Lord Darling has said that it is estimated by the Environmental Health Officers Institution that something like 2 per cent. of all meat sold as beef in meat products in the last year came from very dubious sources. I do not know what 2 per cent is in terms of tons, but I understand it is very considerable. And the term "unfit meat", which is bought at minimal cost and sold at considerable profit, includes, as I understand it, meat slaughtered without hygienic precautions and likely to be diseased or infected; meat considered fit only for pet food, and again meat that is not fit for human consumption. I understand that there is slaughterhouse meat fit only for pet food, and again unfit for human consumption. I understand that there is abundant evidence that the racketeers get their main supplies illegally from a number of sources, including imports from abroad.

I should like to try and illustrate the situation by referring—as the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran, referred—to a well publicised court case in 1931. The noble Lord said that he did not want to go into the details. I have had my lunch so I am all right, but I hope that it will not put anybody else off. There were two men, directors of a firm with a turnover of £1½ million, selling meat all over the country—hundreds and hundreds of tons of contaminated meat, including horse and kangaroo meat—as being fit for human consumption. The firm was summoned for selling 638 tons of such meat in a period of less than eight months, for which it received something like—and this is an approximate figure—£828,000.

I mention this because it will give your Lordships some idea of how inadequate the Act is at present and how much need there is for this amending Bill to strengthen it. In order to get a substantial fine it was necessary to charge them with 183 offences for which the magistrates imposed the highest penalty of £100, so that made it £18,300 worth of fines on the meat. Each of the two directors at the company were fined £6,100 apiece and had to pay £2,000 costs. When we add that together it is a very small amount compared with the costs of the investigation and the bringing of the proceedings, which I understood were in the region of £52,000. The defendants' counsel stated that the firm had gone into voluntary liquidation. My information is that one week after the case one of the defendants launched a new company of meat packers.

This food is sometimes quite disgraceful. On investigation it was found that some of it contained evidence of faeces; there was meat with cancerous content, not to mention the earwigs, the matchsticks and so on. It really is a most appalling situation. The evidence is available for everybody to see. This type of thing is not only going on, but has been going on for a considerable time. I believe that it is of supreme importance that this particular amending Bill should go through your Lordships' House unimpaired, and I hope that nothing will be done to impede it in any way.

2.4 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Darling of Hillsborough on bringing the Bill forward after its very successful passage through another place. I should also like to congratulate Mr. Norman Atkinson and particularly those who drafted the Bill. It is a very important measure, not only as regards its effect of increased protection to the health of the public, but also as regards increasing the severity of punishment for an unscrupulous minority attempting financial gain by imposing a threat to public health. To take determined action to endanger the public health is, in fact, a criminal act.

I was employed some years ago in the wholesale meat trade and at one time involved in the purchase and sale of boneless beef from Australia and the Irish Republic for despatch to, above all places, Chicago in the United States. My experience was that the severity of control in the United States was such that any importer would have to take out rejection insurance at great cost in case the Americans rejected a whole shipment possibly because there was a splinter in one packet of meat.

I soon became aware from that experience of the general efficiency of meat and health inspectors and others involved in detecting unsound meat of whatever kind. I would say that the great majority of butchers, wholesale and retail, who themselves detect unsound meat—either whole or part carcase—immediately call in the inspectors and obtain the necessary condemnation certificate, which, incidentally, allows them credit from those who supplied the meat to them. In many cases such unfit meat is stained with a dye, but not always. Further, the dye generally does not go right through the meat and, in this respect, I believe that stricter regulations are required to ensure the safe disposal of condemned meat. In my view, it should be taken away and burnt. The dye should, as I have said, percolate right through the meat.

Kangaroo meat was mentioned in another place and here today. It has been imported from Australia, but the Australian authorities are not very happy about it. I would say—and I am subject to correction, although I am quite certain of my facts—that with such meat there is a high risk of salmonella. In any case, in my view it should be prohibited for human consumption. Incidentally, so far as I am aware, the one-time demand for kangaroo tails has now disappeared. At one time when there was a meat shortage they were considered by some people to be a considerable delicacy—personally, they did not attract me. Once manufacturing meat is minced, as has already been said, it is difficult to check actual content, and this is where the problem of dealing with unscrupulous operators arises. All operators involved in the preparation of manufacturing meat should, in my view, be licensed and all packs should carry a detailed guarantee of content, similar to that applying to canned and prepared food packs.

In spite of some of the advertisements even for pet food, manufacturing meat does not, of course, consist of prime cuts; they are the cuts which, in the main, unfortunately, the housewife does not regard as useful for the family diet, but if old cookery books are studied, it will be seen that they are better for the family and certainly more economical.

As I have already said, the licensing and the labelling can be done—and possibly is already done—through current regulations. I do not think that there is any question of it affecting this Bill. There are, of course, regulations regarding the meat content of sausages, although now and again, as some of us know, fragments of bone and gristle grate the teeth of the consumer. I am not sure whether such regulations are in force regarding pies, hamburgers and similar products. This takes me back some years when I knew a butcher in Bristol who was famed for his pork pies. All I can say is that he was one of our best buyers of fat, old, frozen imported ewes. I can only suspect that the secret of his success was the use of spices. I do not claim for one moment that this happens today, but here, of course, was no threat to the public health. But I would want to repeat that the bulk use of manufacturing meat is in need of tight check, particularly at the point of preparation and manufacture. But, if you have licensing control and compulsory labelling of packs, there is some check against the unscrupulous operator. That is the point I would put forward, but I do not think that it need necessarily interfere with the progress of the Bill.

Generally—and I think that it is only right to say this—we have a good check on our food protection for the public in Britain. But examples, like the horrifying one of unsound cooking oil exposed in Italy, justify our continuing and extending safeguards. Any evasion of regulations can and must be severely dealt with. In conclusion, the Bill is welcome and from these Benches I wish it a speedy passage through the House. I sincerely trust that no action will be taken here to impede its progress.

2.11 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Darling, for having introduced this Bill this afternoon. The noble Lord explained in detail the rationale behind this Bill, and I can assure your Lordships that the Government are equally concerned at the need for the Bill. I would agree with the sentiments that have been expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Darling. The noble Lord said that the Ministry of Agriculture had supported the Bill's passage in another place and helped his colleague in drafting the Bill. The Government gave their full co-operation to the honourable Gentleman who introduced the Bill in order to secure a number of amendments, which will ensure that the Bill achieves the objective which it was intended to achieve.

That objective is to ensure that stiffer penalties are made available to the courts to deal with those who trade in unfit food, and particularly meat. If I may say so, I think that the Bill as it stands, in the hands of the noble Lord, Lord Darling, is a better Bill than when it was first introduced in another place. I wish the noble Lord the greatest of success with his Bill while it is in this House.

The noble Lord, Lord Darling, and, indeed, the noble Lords, Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran and Lord Wells-Pestell, referred to the disgraceful acts in which some people indulge concerning the sale of unfit meat. I think that possibly this has become more so since so much traffic is done in frozen meat, because it is less easy to see and to identify what the contents are when it is frozen. I very largely supported the sentiments which were expressed then, because the public have a right to require and to expect high standards in the pursuance of trade in meat. The noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, gave us some horrifying examples of what may and, according to him, has happened. The House will have been horrified by that. I have not had my lunch. I think, unlike the noble Lord, Lord WellsPestell, I shall now desist from having it—not only because of the hour.

The main purpose of the Bill is to amend the Food and Drugs Act 1955 so as to make the major offences under the Act triable either on indictment or summarily, instead of only summarily. The maximum fine on summary conviction for the major offences will be increased. The penalty for conviction on indictment will be an unlimited fine, or a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years, or both. The Bill also alters the provisions on time limits for bringing prosecutions which will allow enforcement authorities more time to prepare difficult cases.

The Government fully share the concern which has been the motivating force behind this Bill; that is, that strong action should be taken to prevent the illegal use of unfit meat. It is, in the view of the Government, vital that the public should have full confidence that the meat and the meat products which they buy are fit to eat, and also that the excellent reputation of the great majority of our meat traders should not be sullied by the activities of those few who are unscrupulous.

No single measure can achieve these objectives on its own, and, following extensive consultation with the many organisations which are affected by this spectrum of legislation, the Government propose to issue new regulations which will seek to tighten up some other regulations—for instance, the Meat Sterilisation Regulations 1969. This of course may be another matter, but it is nevertheless a connected and supportive link in the effort to strengthen the law against those who seek to act irresponsibly.

The noble Lord, Lord Darling, referred to the new clauses which were introduced in another place and which were subsequently withdrawn by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary. He said that he did not like them. I am not surprised that he said that. My noble friend Lord Mottistone said that he liked them. These amendments of course related to the main defences which are currently available under the Act. It has been argued by some that, as the penalties under the Act are being increased to accord with similar offences in other legislation, then in turn the main defence which is available under the Food and Drugs Act 1955 should also be brought into line with the defences in those Acts which create similar offences. That was the purpose of my honourable friend's amendments.

I realise that it has wide implications. In consequence of this my department is consulting, as the noble Lord, Lord Darling, said, with interested parties with a view to determining whether there is general support for such an amendment or not. The consultation period does not end until 21st May, and I hope your Lordships will understand if I say that I cannot, at this stage, say what the Government's view will then be. I did note, however, with a wry smile that my noble friend Lord Mottistone said that he greatly welcomed the Bill, but that he would wish to move some similar amendments as those moved in another place. But he conceded that he realised that this might mean the loss of the Bill which, as a Private Member's Bill, we all want to see on the statute book; so he then said that perhaps the Government might like to move the amendments. I admired his generosity of approach. Clearly, this is one of the considerations which the Government will have to bear in mind, together with the results of the review when they come to hand, and I cannot, as I said, say now what the Government's position will then be.

The Government believe that this Bill will make an important contribution to the overall objective by making penalties and legal procedures more appropriate to the nature of the offence in these cases. We support this Bill, and I wish the noble Lord, Lord Darling, the greatest of success with it in its passage through your Lordships' House.

2.19 p.m.

Lord Darling of Hillsborough

My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. All of them of course have supported the Bill. There is only one slightly controversial issue. It would be most inappropriate of me to pursue it now. All I can say is that I still do not like the two clauses that were introduced in the other place, and maybe not only should there be consultation with this enormous number of organisations that the Government are now talking to, or asking opinions from, but it might be worthwhile having consultation with the sponsors of the Bill. After all, it is an all-party Bill.

As I said, I sincerely hope that when the results of this mass canvass, as I have called it, come to the attention of the Ministry, they will not be judged arithmetically. If they are, I can say now what the result will be; there will be 220 for, 10 against and about 60 abstentions. How they will be sorted out by the Ministry I do not know, though the abstainers are the ones who will carry public opinion with them. However, we shall see how it goes. Again, I thank all noble Lords who have supported the Bill. My Lords, I beg to move.

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

House adjourned at twenty-one minutes past two o'clock.