Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Steel : Will the Minister keep an open mind on a question that I raised earlier? The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department appeared yesterday to have made a new statement of policy on the Infant Life (Preservation) Act. That Act is not private Members legislation ; it is a Government statute. I believe that further thought should be given to the possibility of amending that Act, which would have a consequent effect on the Abortion Act.

Mr. Mellor : I heard the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion and I remember the position from my time at the Home Office. The Infant Life (Preservation) Act merely establishes a time limit before which it is suggested a foetus would not be viable and after which the burden of proof switches to those who would say that it is not viable. Clearly, the line drawn in the Act, which is 28 weeks, is not the right one, and 24 weeks is now right. It is clear that the Government accept that, although my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department has said that he would prefer that to be remedied by private Member's legislation. I am sure that I should pass the matter to him for further consideration.

I was moved--anyone would have been moved--by the eloquent speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Amos) and others about the Carlisle baby.

Column 1266

No one can hear about the case without feeling some distress. I am afraid that the questions that my hon. Friend raised are within the ambit of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and fall to be considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions and others. Especially now that the mother concerned has threatened legal action against the health authority I can say no more about the matter than that I know that the health authority concerned conducted a full inquiry. I am sure that lessons were there to be learnt, not least as to why no resuscitation equipment was available. It is a condition of the Secretary of State's licensing of private abortion centres that resuscitation facilities must be available for abortions after 20 weeks. I understand the anxiety about the Carlisle case, but I can say no more about it for the reasons that I have given.

The debate has established a good deal more common ground on the Warnock report than some may have imagined. It has exposed some difficulties that lie in the way of the House reaching a conclusion on abortion, but it has been a helpful and stimulating debate and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having raised the matter in the way that he did.

2.25 pm

Mr. Watts : With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, in the limited time that is available to me I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will understand if I do not pick up many of the points that have emerged during the debate. I have succeeded in at least one of my objectives--to provide an opportunity for a wide-ranging debate on these important issues.

The hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) was slightly critical that my motion dealt with both embryology and abortion. I had two reasons for framing the motion as I did. First, I wished to provide an opportunity for hon. Members to debate the entire range of pro-life issues and it would have been invidious to choose between one or the other. Secondly, in my mind they are connected issues as both involve our attitude to unborn human life.

The reply of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister was rather like the curate's egg. I welcome his renewed commitment to the legislation on embryo research and urge him to introduce it as early as possible, but I was disappointed that my proposal for a way in which the House could reach a conclusion on abortion reform did not find favour with him. He failed to take adequate account of the fact that the Abortion Act 1967 would not have reached the statute book had it not been given extra time by the Government of the day. As that is the legislation which many of us wish to amend, it would be an act of fair play to ensure the time necessary to reach a conclusion.

As I said in my opening remarks, I accept the Government's argument against providing extra time for a private Member's Bill--it was wrong to do it in 1967 and it would be wrong to do it now--but the standing of the House is called into question when we allow our procedures to prevent us from arriving at a decision on an important matter which causes anxiety to many hon. Members and their constituents. I hope that the Minister's remarks do not represent a slamming of the door and a drawing of the bolts, but that he and his ministerial colleagues will be open to further persuasion that this is one way by which reforms could be achieved. He has not

Column 1267

said no for all time. I believe that if a way is not found--there may be ways other than those that I have proposed-- in every Session we shall spend a great deal of private Members' time debating abortion and Bills seeking to amend the legislation.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.



That, at the sitting on Tuesday 20th December--

(1) Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph (1)(b) of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business), Mr. Speaker shall put any Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motions in the name of Mr. Secretary Moore relating to Social Security not later than Seven o'clock ;

(2) If proceedings on the Motion in the name of Mr. John Wakeham relating to Scottish Affairs have not been previously disposed of, Mr. Speaker shall at Ten o'clock put any Questions necessary to dispose of them and of any Amendments to that Motion which may have been selected by him and which may then be moved ; and proceedings in pursuance of this paragraph, though opposed, may be decided after the expiration of the time for opposed business.-- [Mr. Garel-Jones.]

Column 1268

Egg Industry

2.30 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor) : I wish to make a statement about the egg situation When earlier today my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health indicated that details of any scheme to help the egg industry would not be given until I made a statement to the House on Monday, he was correct. I felt that it was right, in view of the widespread speculation about a scheme, that it was in the interests of the hard-pressed industry itself to signal the Government's intention to introduce such a scheme now. I apologise to the House for any misunderstanding that may have arisen and now wish to make the position clear.

The Department of Health drew the Government's attention this summer to a new and growing problem from salmonella enteritidis phage type 4 linked to eggs, and in August the chief medical officer issued advice to the public on the risks of infection from consumption of raw eggs, or home-made dishes containing raw eggs, and later advised vulnerable people to cook eggs until they were solid. As a result of the Department of Health's information my Ministry acted immediately with the industry to tackle the problem at every point in the production chain. This has led, among other initiatives, to the publication of codes of practice to apply to commercial and breeding flocks.

However, during the past two weeks a great deal of uncertainty has arisen over the implications of the problem for consumers, and that has caused a sharp decline in egg sales. The Government have, therefore, taken steps, through a series of newspaper advertisements starting today, to reiterate the advice of the chief medical officer and to ensure that the facts are clear to everyone.

In view of the adverse impact that this uncertainty has had on the market, the Government have also decided, as a wholly exceptional measure, to introduce short-term measures which will enable eggs to be moved so as to help support the market at a critical period. We are entering into immediate discussions with the industry with a view to implementation within a few days. I am also in touch with the European Commission in respect of any Community aspects of those arrangements.

Early this morning I requested permission to make a statement about the scheme on Monday. Obviously consultations must take place with the industry, but I should like to make it quite clear that there will be no announcement of the Government's decisions on the details of the scheme before that statement, to which I hope you will agree, Mr. Speaker, on Monday.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields) : I am glad that the Minister has finally succumbed to our pressure to tell the House about his proposals to help the beleaguered egg and poultry industry. We are pleased, at long last, that the Government have admitted the seriousness of the matter, which has been brought to this level largely by the indiscreet and irresponsible statements of the then Under-Secretary of State for Health. Her statements have devastated the industry. The House knows, the industry knows, and the pubic know, and no matter how great the compensation that the Minister can offer the poultry industry, we must admit that those indiscretions have

Column 1269

ruined the lives--and hon. Gentlemen know that I am right--and livelihoods of many hundreds of egg and poultry producers. It is ironic that we--the general public and the taxpayers--must foot the bill. We are paying just as dearly as the poultry producers for the Under-Secretary's gaffe.

I agree with the Minister that the first objective must now be to try to restore public confidence in the industry. I hope that the first step was taken just half an hour ago when the Under-Secretary resigned her position. The problem could have been eased two weeks ago if the Prime Minister had done her duty and sacked the hon. Lady.

The Government have no alternative but to compensate those egg producers whose businesses have suffered as a result of ministerial incompetence. Furthermore, how much compensation does the Minister intend to make available to those workers employed in the industry who will be made redundant as a result of the recent fiasco? Today, the Minister has referred only to removing excess eggs from the market. We are talking about roughly 15 million eggs a day. The present situation cannot continue for long, and the House knows that removing excess eggs is not the long-term solution to the problem. Given the position into which the Government have got us, the only answer is to try to reduce the supply of eggs. Tragically, that means culling a fair proportion of the British poultry flock.

What are the Minister's plans for paying compensation to those breeders who will be forced to gas their chickens, many of them healthy, to reduce the stock? Has the Minister any idea how much that will cost? Will it cost £10 million, or £40 million, as suggested by the National Farmers Union?

I appreciate that the Minister has had to come to the House in some haste. Will he assure us, however, that when he finalises the details of the scheme--I urge him to do so as quickly as possible as he and I know that poultry producers are going bankrupt right now--he will come to the House to allow us to debate them in full at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. MacGregor : My concern throughout has, of course, been for the consumers and the industry. That is why all the steps that I have taken have been directed to that end. That is why I made a number of comments about the safety of eggs and why I have always clearly stated the chief medical officer's advice. That is why, earlier this week, we decided to go ahead with the advertising campaign that will be conducted this weekend. That is also why I am now considering the scheme.

This scheme is not the first step. We have taken a number of steps ever since the summer to deal with the new and growing problem identified as one particular type of salmonella. We have acted consistently throughout and since the summer.

We now face an abnormal market--

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Markets cannot be abnormal.

Mr. MacGregor : As usual, the hon. Gentleman understands nothing about markets.

In normal circumstances the scheme would have taken many weeks, if not months, to formulate given the abnormal state of the egg market. There is no question,

Column 1270

but that, at present, the egg market is most unusual. Because of that, it is taking me a little time to produce the scheme. It is wrong to call it a scheme of compensation ; it is a measure to deal with the market situation.

The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) will understand that there are many practical difficulties about such a scheme. I am sure that he will understand why I do not wish to comment on the details of it until I make my statement on Monday. Whether we have a debate is obviously a matter for discussion through the usual channels. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, if you, Mr. Speaker, agree, I shall make a statement on Monday.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his extremely constructive, timely and positive statement.

I believe that I am right in saying that this House is an understanding place and that it is understanding of Members who, from time to time, make mistakes. The tragedy of this case is that the Under-Secretary of State did not apologise for her error. If she had, the House would have forgiven her. Are not the Government liable, because this mistake was made by one of Her Majesty's Ministers? Therefore, my right hon. Friend's proposal is indeed compensation for the many egg and poultry producers who have sustained a massive loss as a result of what has happened.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many egg and poultry producers have sustained a major loss, not least those in my constituency, in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and in those of many others? Will he therefore make a statement early next week which will give these valuable sections of agriculture the compensation that they deserve?

Mr. MacGregor : I have already twice made it clear that I shall be making a statement on Monday. Today, I am not announcing any arrangements for the scheme. I have said roughly what it is intended to do and that I do not see it as compensation. I am not making a detailed announcement now, but the announcement I have made implies no acceptance of legal liability on the part of the Government. Now it is important to consider the interests of the consumer and of the industry. That is what we should be thinking about, and that is why I am focusing entirely on ensuring that the full facts are put before the public so that they can see that the risk to normal, healthy people from consuming eggs is small. I hope that they will go on consuming eggs as avidly as they always have done and as I always do. That is the best outcome for the industry, and it is why we put the full facts before the public today.

It is also important to recognise that we face a new problem. That is why we have given in full the chief medical officer's advice, particularly to vulnerable groups. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that it is because I recognise the industry's position that I am working flat out to produce a scheme that I intend to announce on Monday.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) : The Minister appeared to suggest a moment ago that the Under-Secretary of State for Health had been a casual victim of market forces. Surely things are a little more complicated than that. I agree with the hon. Member for

Column 1271

Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), some of us will never understand why an instant retraction and apology that the whole House would have understood was not made.

The advertisement this morning states that we eat 200 million eggs a week and that there have been 49 outbreaks of salmonella this year. That represents one outbreak a week on a consumption of 200 million eggs a week. Is not the restoration of a sense of proportion in this more important than shovelling taxpayers' money at the problem? Will the right hon. Gentleman do his best to restore that sense of proportion? Will he pass on a comment made by one of the egg producers in my constituency, which was that he and some of his colleagues in the industry suspect that salmonella may originate from the illegal washing of eggs? Does the Ministry have any information about that?

Mr. MacGregor : The right hon. Gentleman completely misunderstood my reference to an abnormal market ; he got it wrong.

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman's main point. It is important to keep a sense of perspective, or, if necessary, to restore one. That is what I have been endeavouring to do throughout. As for the figures in the advertisement, I want to underline one other point. It is important to understand the statement that the 49 cases are an underestimate. Let us be quite clear what this means. There are and always have been unreported cases of food poisoning from salmonella, usually because its effects are mild. By definition, we do not have these unreported figures. However, in the context of the consumption of 30 million eggs a day, the number of infected cases must be very small indeed. I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we need to get that message across and that we need to restore this sense of perspective.

As to the right hon. Gentleman's final point, not only the new type of salmonella, but also salmonella in general is often caused by people not observing the normal rules of food hygiene in the home and elsewhere. That is why in the advertisement we have focused sharply on food hygiene in the home. Long before the present concern arose we were considering new booklets about food hygiene in the home which we shall produce early next year. Those are the crucial points. We must keep a proper sense of perspective.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) : In his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), my right hon. Friend said that the Government do not accept legal responsibility for what has happened. May we be quite precise about this? Is it quite clear that the Government are acting in response to the economic crisis in the industry with a voluntary political initiative? Is it clear that this does not imply a legal liability?

Mr. MacGregor : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is quite right.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) : I, too, have an egg producer in my constituency who has had to slaughter a third of his chickens. He is in danger of having to slaughter another third this weekend and losing jobs. Will the Minister give a lead to such producers by telling them that they should take no irrevocable action until the Government have come forward with details? Can he give an assurance that, in contrast to the Chernobyl

Column 1272

compensation, which many farmers in my constituency failed to get, there will not be an artificial time cut-off that will debar some producers from any scheme that the Minister may be studying?

Mr. MacGregor : This is quite different from the Chernobyl case, and I am not contemplating a compensation measure. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said in the first part of his question. He has drawn attention to the precise reason why I signalled the Government's intentions earlier today. I did that because I wanted to give a reassurance before the weekend. I hope that after consultations with the industry full details will be available to the House on Monday.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) : Will my right hon. Friend accept our gratitude to him for coming to the House to make this limited statement before the weekend? We could not expect all the details to be obtained now, but it is most important to egg producers that my right hon. Friend has indicated the action that the Government are taking.

We have never had a direct contradiction of the statement by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) that most egg production is affected by salmonella enteritidis. Everybody knows that to be wrong, but it has never been said from the Dispatch Box that it is wrong. May we have that made quite clear, because it will help to give some reassurance to people who eat eggs. Production has been cut, and distribution in Devon has been cut by between 40 and 50 per cent. during the past 10 days. The Government must take that element of disaster in the industry into account when they are working out the compensation. May I have an assurance that they will?

Mr. MacGregor : In the light of what my hon. Friend said at the end of his question, I must make clear yet again that this is not a compensation scheme. I was not here earlier in the day when these matters were being discussed because I was working and am still working flat out on the details of the scheme. I know that that is what the industry, consumers and the House would wish me to do. As I have already said, I hope to be able to give all the details on Monday. These are complex matters and some of the elements have never been considered before. That means that it is inevitably taking a little time.

On my hon. Friend's second point, I repeat that the important thing is to keep putting the facts before the public. One of the difficulties in the past few days is that one sentence or other has been taken alone and often used out of context. That is why it is important to put the totality of the case to consumers and that is why we have issued advertisements. I have made clear on many occasions, and I think it has been picked up, that it is not the case that most eggs are infected.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : The Minister spoke about consultation with the EEC. Could he tell the House whether the steps that he has taken since the summer to deal with some or many of the salmonella problems were taken under EEC legislation or under legislation of the United Kingdom? Secondly, bearing in mind that the treaties relating to the agricultural policy refer to "stabilisation of markets", is the expenditure that he expects to announce on Monday covered by the treaty of Rome or by United Kingdom legislation? If it is United

Column 1273

Kingdom legislation, will he have to get the permission of the Commission or the Council for this step, or can he do it entirely on his own prerogative?

Mr. MacGregor : The steps that we have been taking since the summer have been pretty well entirely concentrated on ensuring that the industry takes proper health measures and that the difficulties associated with this new and growing problem arising from this one strain of salmonella are being fully attended to in order to minimise them. These steps--codes of practice for the poultry and egg industry, looking at the feed and so on-- are steps that we have been taking within our own control in the United Kingdom.

As to the measures that I am now considering, the point is that certain types of schemes have to be cleared with the Commission--for example, to ensure that they are not unfair state aids. Hon. Members often express concern about what they fear might be unfair state aids in other countries, so it is entirely reasonable for the Commission to be involved when such schemes are being considered. That is one reason why I am in touch with the Commission.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : My right hon. Friend will be aware that I have tabled a series of questions for answer today on the detailed issues that concern the egg industry, and I am happy to wait until Monday for those details. However, would my right hon. Friend respond to a suggestion made by egg producers in my constituency about the possibility of random sampling of eggs from each producer to see whether they are affected, and the issue of a certificate if they are not, which could be displayed at the point of sale? Many of us feel that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) has done the honourable thing. She was a well respected Member of the Government, and we hope that she will be back to serve the Government in some other capacity.

Mr. MacGregor : I am willing to look at anything that would be helpful either to consumers or to the industry, because they have identical interests in these matters. One of the difficulties about random sampling is that it cannot give any assurance about the rest of the eggs. We could not give cast-iron guarantees.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East) : Bearing in mind that the Government do not have any money--it is all taxpayers' money--how much taxpayers' money will this debacle cost? There is the cost of advertising and of removing the eggs from the market, and we do not know about compensation. Will the Minister give us an estimate? Will this not be the most expensive publicity-seeking ministerial announcement in all history? Should there not be a Governmnt health warning on most of the ministerial statements we hear in the House? Many ministerial statements harm my constituents who live on benefit, especially child benefit. No notice is taken--

Mr. Speaker : Order. I hope that the House will keep to the subject of the statement. The subject is eggs, we must not go beyond that.

Mr. MacGregor : I have already made it clear that I shall be making the announcement about the details of the scheme on Monday.

Column 1274

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton) : Why is my right hon. Friend reticent about producing compensation and calling it such when the Chernobyl disaster was not due to the recklessness of a United Kingdom Minister and this is? Will the funding of the scheme to be announced on Monday come from the Department whose Minister caused the disaster or from my right hon. Friend's Department, which did not?

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the comment that he made about raw eggs in cooking refers to dishes that are not cooked after the raw eggs are put into them and not to dishes that are cooked after the raw eggs are put into them? My right hon. Friend spoke of dishes in which raw eggs are used, when in much cooking raw eggs are used but the dish is subsequently cooked, and many local authorities are giving wrong advice on the basis of that ambiguity.

Mr. MacGregor : I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern on this issue, but I hope that he will agree that it would be wise for me to wait until I can make a full statement to the House before I go into any details, or I shall be pressed to give other details. As to my hon. Friend's second point, I cannot do better than repeat the advertisement in today's newspapers :

"everyone should avoid eating raw eggs or uncooked foods made from them".

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) : Will the Minister join me in expressing sorrow at the plight of the former junior health Minister whose political career so far has been quixotic, exotic, ebullient and exciting? Bearing in mind the fact that, as a result of the statement today, many more people will eat eggs and put themselves at risk from salmonella poisoning, does the Minister plan to bring forward a compensation scheme for customers who are poisoned as a result of eating eggs?

Mr. MacGregor : I hope that as a result of reading the advertisements this morning everyone will return to their normal practice of eating eggs. That would be the best thing that could happen. People should also consider the advice of the Chief Medical Officer. He has consistently given that advice for some time and I am anxious that everyone should be aware of it. It is not in the egg industry's interests that people should not take that advice and contract food poisoning. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do exactly as he said and will encourage people to eat as many eggs as possible, taking account of that advice.

Several Hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. This is an interim statement. I shall allow questions to run for a further 10 minutes, and then we must move on. Any hon. Members who are not called will have some priority on Monday.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be gratitude that once again he has shown such detailed knowledge of and care for the industry? Will he ensure that the aim of the package is proper restitution of the rightful expectations of those who have been deprived in the past fortnight by the outbreak of hysteria? Will he also stress that it has been an outbreak of hysteria and that there is no need for ordinary people to worry about ordinary diets?

Column 1275

Mr. MacGregor : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks. For details of the scheme, he will have to await my statement on Monday. He is absolutely right in saying that people should return to their normal practice and take full notice of our advertisements in the newspapers this morning.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) : Is there an upper limit to this monetary intervention in the market, and how is the Ministry likely to pay it?

Mr. MacGregor : The hon. Gentleman must wait for my statement on Monday.

Mr. Den Dover (Chorley) : Does my right hon. Friend accept that many hon. Members and people in the egg industry are disappointed with today's advertisements? Should not the Ministry be more positive? May we expect that by Monday some thought will have been given to further advertisements that will be proactive rather than reactive?

Mr. MacGregor : It is important for any Government statement or advertisement of this sort to stick to the facts and be clear about them. The facts that we outlined, for example, at the beginning of the advertisement are clear :

"Eggs are a valuable and nutritious part of a balanced diet. We in Britain eat, on average, 30 million eggs a day--200 million a week. The number of reported cases of food poisoning from salmonella linked to eggs is very small by comparison with the huge numbers of eggs that are consumed."

That is absolutely clear. It is also necessary to repeat the advice given by the chief medical officer, particularly to vulnerable groups, as a result of the new strain of salmonella.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) : The Minister has denied legal liability. Can he point to any cause of the abnormal market in eggs other than the reckless statement of his agent, the former junior Minister?

Mr. MacGregor : Many people have made many statements in the past two weeks. The issue has hit the headlines. It is important for it to settle back into the normal run of events and for people to look--but not from the perspective of sensational headlines--at our advertisements which repeat clearly what we have said for a considerable time.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury) : It is essential to return egg supply and demand to a better balance. Should not any scheme that seeks to do that have the support of the whole House? We can help to improve the demand part of the equation by reassuring our constituents that there is no danger from eating eggs. They need only to read today's newspaper advertisements to see that the risks are minuscule. Re-establishing a sense of proportion and perspective would be the fairest way of helping egg and poultry producers.

Mr. MacGregor : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. One important aspect of supply and demand is to get demand to its normal levels.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : While the Minister is working flat out on the scheme that is to be announced on Monday-- whether it is called compensation or restabilising the industry is immaterial at this stage--will he take into consideration the fact that

Column 1276

hundreds of people have been laid off work? If the industry is to be restabilised, let us talk about restabilising them as well. Can the Minister assure the House that in any future report on the egg industry he will consider whether there is any need to increase the inspectorate, and any need for a report on how hens are kept and the type of feed that they are given? Will he also consider whether the problem of imported food is being increased?

Mr. MacGregor : In answer to the first question, may I say that I have stressed throughout that my concern is with both consumers and the industry, which I want to see in a healthy state. When I refer to the industry, of course I mean all those working in it.

In answer to the second question, some of the matters to which the hon. Gentleman referred, such as feed, and imported feed, are issues that we have been following up in our initiatives since the Department of Health warned us about the problem in the summer. We are taking a number of steps in those directions.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that few areas of human activity are without risk, and that that is particularly true of what we eat? It is important to get the risk into perspective. What has hit the market is a belief that that risk is greater than it is. My right hon. Friend's statement today, and the statement that he is to make on Monday, deal with that very effectively. Certainly egg producers from Scotland to whom I spoke this morning were pleased to know that the Government are moving, and are moving so quickly.

Mr. MacGregor : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I think that much of what is happening is being taken out of perspective. My efforts have largely been designed to get it back into perspective and out of the headlines so that people behave in their normal sensible way.

I also entirely agree that in looking at risk in perspective it is necessary to look at other aspects as well as eggs. There are potential difficulties with many other types of food and drink. There are potential risks in practically everything that we do as human beings. What we are doing in this instance is minimising the risk.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : Although the comments of the Under- Secretary of State for Health appear to have been wrong and damaging, it could be argued that she was only doing her job and drawing attention to the health risk. Is it not the Ministry of Agriculture that has been dilatory in not tackling the problem of contaminated birds and feed long before now, given that the trend of increasing infection was already well known?

Just as when an overcrowded train crashes there are more injuries and fatalities, overcrowded factory farm conditions create an increased spread of infection. Should not the Government consider phasing out factory farming conditions, or some of the worst aspects of them?

Mr. MacGregor : The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. We have been taking active steps in the Ministry to deal with the problem. In certain salmonella strains new problems are growing in the United States and many other European countries. I have been abroad a good deal in the past two weeks, and I have been discussing the issue with the Ministers of Agriculture in the United States and most of the member states of the European Community. We are all doing what we can to deal with the problem.

Column 1277

The hon. Gentleman is also wrong in what he said in his attack on what he described as factory farming. There is no evidence that free-range eggs are affected any differently from battery hen eggs. We must deal with the problem in both, as indeed we are doing.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) : I am sure that the many egg producers in my constituency will welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, and we look forward to his more detailed statement on Monday. Does he not agree, however, that it is most important to maintain a viable egg-producing industry, and that the scheme that he announces on Monday should take all the affected eggs off the market? The worst possible tragedy on top of the tragedy that we have already suffered, would occur if, when the market picks up, we were not able to supply it from our domestic production.

Next Section

  Home Page