HL Deb 11 May 1988 vol 496 cc1169-72

6.1 p.m.

Lord Denham

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a Statement on the illness which many of your Lordships and the staff of your Lordships' House, primarily in the Refreshment Department, have recently experienced.

Since yesterday, when the seriousness of the situation was recognised, a team, led by the Medical Officer for Environmental Health for the City of Westminster, assisted by the Communicable Diseases Surveillance Centre, has been conducting thorough investigations.

It would seem likely that the infection has been caused by a salmonella, one of the commonest causes of food poisoning. Symptoms commonly occur within two to three days but may occur up to one week following ingestion. In the circumstances, having considered all aspects of the problem, the investigating team has recommended that, provided certain measures are taken, there is no reason why a limited service should not continue to be provided by the Refreshment Department. Perhaps I should add here that the kitchens were found to be in first-class order. The team will continue to monitor events closely.

The only precautions that are recommended are that normal hygiene measures, such as the washing of hands, be scrupulously observed and that if anyone should become ill they contact their doctor.

If further advice is required, it may be obtained from a representative of the medical team on 01–798 1232. A 24-hour service will be maintained.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, perhaps I may thank the noble Lord the Chief Whip for making that Statement so promptly this afternoon. It is good to hear that our kitchens were found to be in first-class order. I am sure that that will give a measure of assurance to Peers. There was speculation in some elements of the tabloid press that Legionnaires' disease was involved. I wonder whether the noble Lord will confirm categorically that that is not so.

Lord Denham

My Lords, yes, I can tell the House categorically that that is not the case.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord the Chief Whip for making the Statement to the House. Clearly there has been considerable distress felt by members of the staff and Members of your Lordships' House, especially among the team of people working on the Education Reform Bill. We hope that they will be able to be in their places tomorrow to carry on that marathon. This is not a joking matter of course, but as this is one of the commonest causes of food poisoning, it is an inappropriate thing to happen in your Lordships' House. It might have been more suitable at the other end of the building! I should like to ask the noble Lord one question. What is meant by a limited service in the Refreshment Department? Again, I make no comment on the previous service!

We are grateful for the information and especially for the knowledge that people who are in distress can contact the medical team. I know that a number of noble Lords who are in hospital or fairly seriously ill at home will probably make use of that number. I also hope that members of the Refreshment Department staff are not too seriously afflicted, are shortly returned to health and are soon back in action. I thank the noble Lord for making the Statement.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. I must apologise for preempting his question to begin with. The service is limited because of the shortage of staff. I must emphasise that the staff who are ill will not be allowed back until they have been cleared completely by the investigating team. Thorough cleansing of the kitchens will take place tonight before food is prepared tomorrow. There will be a daily review of control measures by the investigating team.

Lord Renton

My Lords, as one of your Lordships who has been one of the sufferers, may I too say how much I appreciate the Statement made by my noble friend. It is both timely and reassuring. We are grateful to him. Does it follow from his Statement that there is no cause for alarm? Does it also follow that none of the sufferers is likely to be a carrier of this unpleasant complaint?

Lord Denham

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. I sympathise with him as one of the sufferers. That being so, perhaps I may congratulate him on the remarkably healthy appearance he shows today. There is no cause for alarm. One can be a carrier. It is rare, but I must repeat that the precautions to be taken are the normal precautions of cleanliness; that is, washing, especially before meals.

Lord Morris

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that my understanding is that there are over 200 different strains of salmonella? Has this strain been identified? If it is a new strain could it possibly be salmonella nobilissima!

Lord Denham

My Lords, I was not aware of my noble friend's knowledge of salmonella. I am afraid that I cannot give him the exact classification of the strain. Although some strains of salmonella are more dangerous than others, ours seems to be a reasonable one.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, will my noble friend set our minds at rest on one other point? Is there any connection between the most unusually short lists of speakers in the debate today and the sudden onset of this illness?

Lord Denham

My Lords, I think that that is accidental although it possibly arises from the same event. I am told that the exact strain of salmonella is now in the process of being identified.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, will the noble Lord give us an idea of how many members of staff of the Refreshment Department and how many Peers have been afflicted by this illness?

Lord Denham

My Lords, I think that it is about 40 Peers and members of staff.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, as one of the Members of your Lordships' House who is not infrequently called upon to give medical advice to noble Lords, perhaps I may take the liberty of asking the noble Lord the Chief Whip one question. Whenever there are rumours of an epidemic, it is remarkable how soon certain people begin to feel that they are suffering from the condition. It is interesting to note that last night, when the debate went on a long time, a number of noble Lords felt unwell and believed it necessary to go home. I emphasise that not many of those noble Lords have been suffering from the condition. It is clear from the Statement that we have not yet identified the point in the food chain at which this infection has been introduced. It can be at any stage. It may well be outside the House and connected with the supply of some food or liquid. I am sure that the professional people who are studying this matter will sooner or later identify the source of this infection. When we have that knowledge, it would be helpful if the noble Lord would give it to the House.

Lord Denham

My Lords, I shall certainly give that information to the House. The team monitoring what is happening will continue to do so. I think one must also make clear that people have symptoms of upset stomachs at any time in the year. If anybody has that, it may not necessarily be connected with the outbreak.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord two questions. The first has already been asked but not answered. What is meant by a "limited service"? Secondly, as the noble Lord will know, salmonella poisoning often arises from frozen food which has not been properly defrosted. Can the noble Lord say whether any such food is used?

Lord Ampthill

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord the Chief Whip would allow me to intervene since I may be in a better position to answer the question about the limited service. As I am responsible for the Refreshment Department, perhaps I may take the opportunity to express my very great regret that this event has occurred. The origins are by no means certain yet; it will take many days of research before the cause of the outbreak is established.

The reason for the restricted service, as the Chief Whip has told the House, is that 21 out of a total of 54 staff are away ill. Again, as the Chief Whip has told the House, they will not be allowed to return to work until all the tests upon them are positive as far as their health is concerned and negative as far as the ailment is concerned. The way in which we shall restrict the service is the simple one of introducing a smaller menu than normal. We may have to restrict the numbers of functions but I am hoping that that can be avoided. I hope that those comments answer the noble Lord's question.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for that explanation. We appreciate that he is doing everything he possibly can to deal with the matter. I also asked about frozen foods. Very often salmonella poisoning arises from frozen food which has been improperly defrosted. Can the noble Lord say whether frozen food is used at all in the House of Lords?

Lord Ampthill

My Lords, one of the advantages of a shortage of space is that we have very little storage room for frozen or chilled food. Most food consumed is fresh, but there is a fair amount of frozen food because we never know the numbers for which we shall have to cater.

The deepfreeze room was re-equipped last summer. The inspections which have already been taking place during the last 24 hours have indicated that the conditions in the kitchen are splendid. Those inspecting the premises are enormously impressed with the high standards of hygiene and the routines which are followed. They were astonished to realise that we use separate boards on which to chop each different food and that the boards are colour-coded to make certain that there is no mixing.

As many noble Lords may have heard, it has been my permanent dread that this event should occur in the House. We take a great many precautions. I repeat what I said at the beginning, that I very much regret that this has happened.

Lord Kilbracken

My Lords, will the noble Lord tell us whether it is perfectly safe to use the bars in the House?

Lord Denham

My Lords, I think that we may be getting a little out of order. The rules of order in the House were not designed to cope with an emergency such as this. However I am told that it is perfectly safe to use the bar and sometimes even advisable!