HL Deb 16 July 1996 vol 574 cc740-2

3.1 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, following the meeting between the Minister for Agriculture at the Scottish Office and Mr. Errington, they will inform Parliament of the outcome of the proceedings brought against the latter by Clydesdale District Council.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Lindsay)

My Lords, the proceedings between Clydesdale District Council and Mr. Errington were concluded on 28th February 1996. The sheriff found in favour of Mr. Errington and awarded costs to him for the value of his cheese and expenses from 14th February 1995 to be met by Clydesdale District Council. On 1st July 1996 I met Mr. Errington and the new director of public protection services at South Lanarkshire Council, the successor council to Clydesdale District Council. The meeting established the willingness of both parties to forge a new working relationship for the future.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware of how much I personally appreciate the courtesy and attention with which he has listened to representations made on behalf of Mr. Errington and the trouble that he has taken to visit Mr. Errington at his farm to inquire into what happened? That was most unusual and I should like my noble friend to realise that my thanks on this occasion are not merely formal. He has done marvellously well.

However, there is just one little point that I should like to add. I am sure that my noble friend has done all that he can to urge Clydesdale District Council to pay the huge sum of costs awarded against it by the sheriff. Does my noble friend know whether the council has yet paid those costs?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's kind remarks. Given my noble friend's previous track record, I had imagined that there might well be a sting in the tail. Perhaps I may commend the energy with which my noble friend has brought this matter to the attention of Ministers and the House. All who have been involved in the case are agreed that lessons have been learned and that much good will come of that unfortunate episode.

My noble friend asked specifically about costs. Mr. Errington has received payment with regard to the judicial review and the appeal. With regard to legal and witness fees in respect of the sheriff court hearing which commenced on 14th August, the sum involved has yet to be settled, but the hearing date has been settled and the sheriff intends to award Mr. Errington his costs. I remind the House that Mr. Errington makes a very fine product which I commend to all those who like blue cheese.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, perhaps I may associate myself with the grateful thanks which the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, has expressed to the Minister for the trouble that he has taken. Not only were the noble Earl's actions correct, but he went even further on this occasion than he need have done. We are all glad that the matter now seems to have been resolved. I do not think that I have ever read as much background material on any Question as on this.

Will the Minister consider one or two other points? I understand that the original complaint came from the local authority in Edinburgh and that the South Lanarkshire people had to examine it. There was then an investigation by the Scottish Agricultural College which said that the product could be dangerous, but another college, the Analytical Service Centre in Motherwell, gave it the "all clear". What worries me now is how we can reassure the public that our food hygiene practices are safe. Was this episode a one-off or does it indicate that procedures need to be tightened up? I wonder, for instance, whether we should have a government analyst to supervise such matters.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that public health will remain paramount in all such cases. Indeed, Edinburgh District Council and a further two district councils analysed the cheese originally and found it to be in excess of the listeria threshold. However, the science involved in listeria is complex. Clearly, one needs a combination of increased research, which we are providing, and increased education for environmental health officers, which we are currently considering, as well as the further development of a code of best practice, upon which the Scottish Office, MAFF and the Department of Health are working with food authorities and specialist cheesemakers.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, can the noble Earl tell us what this fascinating cheese is called?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, it is called Lanark Blue and it is regularly available in the Dining Room next door.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, what costs have so far been incurred in the case by the complainant and by the local authority? Can the noble Earl give us some idea of the extent of the liability which will fall to be met by the ratepayers of Strathclyde Regional Council?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, details of many of the costs arising from the case are not in the public domain. I believe that Mr. Errington has not released information on the costs which he has already been paid for the judicial review and the appeal. I told the House a little earlier that the costs associated with the sheriff court have still to be finalised, but they will be paid to Mr. Errington. Costs have been awarded against Clydesdale District Council, which is now South Lanarkshire Council.