Home Page

Column 21

Egg Industry

3.30 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor) : With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about measures to assist the egg industry.

As I explained to the House on Friday, the Department of Health drew attention this summer to a new and growing problem from salmonella enteritidis phage type 4 linked to eggs, and since August the chief medical officer has been issuing advice to the public. As a result of the Department of Health's information, Agriculture Departments acted immediately with them and the industry to tackle the problem at every point in the production chain. This led, among other initiatives, to the publication of codes of practice to apply to commercial and breeding flocks.

The uncertainty over the implications of salmonella enteritidis has recently caused a sharp decline in egg sales. The Government have decided, in these wholly exceptional circumstances, to introduce the following two short-term measures.

The first measure will provide a payment to egg packers for the destruction of surplus eggs for a period of four weeks from 21 December. The payment will be at the rate of 30p per dozen eggs on up to 1.1 million cases. This will tackle the overhang of eggs in the system.

A second measure will be introduced to help the industry to reduce the size of the egg laying flock. This will provide for a payment for a bird in the age range 18 to 30 weeks. The scheme will enable up to 4 million hens-- roughly equivalent to 10 per cent. of the laying flock--to be culled under the supervision of the Agriculture Departments.

Taken together, these two short-term measures are designed to assist the egg industry to adjust to the market situation now confronting it. The estimated cost of these two schemes is at maximum £17 million in payments to the industry. There will also be payments which are estimated at £2 million to contractors and local authorities.

I have been in contact with the European Commission to inform it of the actions we are taking.

Parliamentary approval for these new measures will be sought in Supplementary Supply Estimates for the agricultural support Votes of the Agriculture Departments and authority for the payments will rest upon the Estimates and the Appropriation Act. Pending that approval, expenditure will be met by repayable advances from the contingencies fund. Similar arrangements will be made for expenditure in Northern Ireland. These costs will be found from the reserve, so that there will be no addition to the planned total of public expenditure. The Government have been formulating detailed plans for tackling this problem since the new information became available. The two codes of practice were only the start. As I made clear to the House on 1 December and again on Friday, we have been preparing a number of other steps. These will include more stringent bacteriological monitoring of animal protein for animal feed, the registration of breeding flocks and hatcheries for hygiene control purposes, and strengthening the controls relating to imported animal protein. I hope that the actions I have announced today, taken with the advertising campaign setting out the advice of the

Column 22

chief medical officer and presenting the facts to consumers, will help quickly to restore order to the egg market in the interests of consumers and everyone working in that important sector of the food industry.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields) : Following the remarks of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), it was only a matter of time before the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had to come to the House with proposals to spend taxpayers' money in an effort to bail out the troubled egg and poultry producers. Since the hon. Lady's gaffe two weeks ago, egg sales have fallen by half and over 15 million eggs each and every day cannot be sold. The future is even bleaker.

The Minister is facing a twofold problem. First, he must find a way of keeping the egg producers in business. Secondly, and more fundamentally, he must find a way of tackling the problem of salmonella in the egg and poultry industry, because, as The Lancet reported only this month, there is a salmonella epidemic in this country. Therefore, we are disappointed with the Minister's statement because he has yet again displayed the complacency that has throughout characterised the Government's attitude to the problem. He has manifestly failed to deal with the main problem of the extent of salmonella in eggs and poultry, which is the key to restoring public confidence in the safety of eating eggs and thus the long-term future of the industry for which we all wish to strive.

Whatever the facts, the public believe that there was an element of truth in the former Under-Secretary of State's comments, but the key question is how large is the threat of salmonella. By his support for his former junior Minister, the Secretary of State for Health has clearly a different perspective from that of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. While they pursue their departmental rivalry, the British people are left unaware of and completely confused about the extent of the problem.

Will the Minister set aside the petty bickering and, with his Cabinet colleagues, set up a small group of experts to advise us on the extent of salmonella? Only then can we work out what action is needed to tackle it. Will the Minister, too, reverse the cuts in the agricultural and food research budget, which has ironically resulted in the team working on salmonella in poultry being given their redundancy notices only last month? While the Government are pursuing such stupid and vindictive actions, how can we and the poultry industry have confidence in them?

In his statement, the Minister made great play of his initiatives on the monitoring and hygiene of the breeding flock, and, of course, the voluntary code. We believe that if it is necessary for the code to be voluntary then it ought to be statutory when it concerns public health.

Furthermore, will the Minister confirm the allegation made by the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body) that the Conservative Government watered down the regulations for hygiene standards in poultry feed early in the1980s? Will the Minister explain what he envisages happening to the eggs after the four-week period? What provisions is he making for the producers who may be caught out before 21 December? Is he confident that the culling of 10 per cent. of the flock will be sufficient? Does he intend paying any compensation to the workers who have been made redundant because of that?

The Minister claims that he has worked long and hard on this measure--I am sure that he has--but he has funked

Column 23

the main issue. He has failed to make any attempt to evaluate the true measure of salmonella in eggs and poultry and, until he does that, the general public will naturally remain concerned about their health, and I am afraid that public confidence will not be restored.

Mr. MacGregor : The hon. Gentleman has asked many questions. I shall endeavour to answer them all briefly, for obvious reasons. First, on the question of the two schemes, obviously I regret having to do this. I would much have preferred not to have had to do it, but, as the hon. Gentleman has recognised, the plain fact is that we face a difficult situation in the market place. I hope that he will agree that it is right in the interests of the industry and of the consumer that it should be dealt with straight away.

I make it clear that these are my final proposals. It is not intended that there should be any further financial sums available beyond those which I have announced. The hon. Gentleman said that the future was even bleaker. I hope that he will agree that taking action, on the one hand, to put the facts before the consumer and, on the other, dealing with the industry problem is the best way of ensuring that the future is not bleak.

The hon. Gentleman is a fair person in these matters, so I am sure that he will realise the extreme difficulty of dealing with salmonella overall and eradicating it. There are many hundreds of different types of salmonella. We are faced with a new strain that has arisen not only in this country but in others. We are having to learn as much as we can about it and to find ways of dealing with it.

It is absolutely fair to say that no country has mastered the problems of salmonella in animals and poultry because it is a highly complex disease that involves a great number of factors at all stages of the chain. One such factor is the bacteria, which can come from the environment or wild birds and which is difficult to eradicate. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no complacency on my part and we are looking at every possible way in which to deal with the problem. It would be misleading to say that the disease can be eradicated, but we are endeavouring to find the measures to minimise the risk at every stage of the production chain.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that one of the best contributions that can be made to consumers and industry alike, which is in their interests--at the end of his remarks the hon. Gentleman referred to the workers in the industry and I have as much concern about them as he has, which is why I have taken such steps today--is for the full facts to be put before the public. There is a very low degree of risk, particularly if members of the public--housewives in the kitchen--follow proper hygiene practices. It is extremely important that that message gets through to the public.

It is not the fact, as I have repeated on many occasions in the House--not just on Friday--that most eggs are infected with salmonella.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : How does the Minister know?

Mr. MacGregor : From the sampling that we have done. The incidence of salmonella in the breeding flocks of laying chicks is extremely low. All our evidence suggests that the incidence of the disease in laying flocks is extremely small.

Column 24

If consumers follow the advice of the chief medical officer--he is as anxious as I am to get that message across in its entirety--the risks are very, very small.

In 1987 there were 20,000 reported cases of food poisoning. There are approximately 50 reported cases of outbreaks of salmonella associated with eggs. I say outbreaks because they involved more than one person ; they involved 1,000 people. Those figures set this matter in context. There are always problems about food poisoning, and we must do everything we can in the production chain and in the home to reduce the risk.

I am anxious to put all the facts before the public. Clearly there is a limit to what one can put in an advertisement, but I am seeking ways to put all the facts before the public.

The hon. Gentleman referred to disputes between the Ministry and the Department of Health. Let me refer him to what my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health said on 5 December :

"There has been the closest co-operation between my Department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Government's chief medical officer. We all agree on our statements and on our message to the public. Whenever there are minor public health worries, it is inevitable that people will exaggerate I hope that the House will get the matter in proportion and will accept that there is a health problem, which we are tackling, and that the average member of the public is not at risk."--[ Official Report, 5 December 1988 ; Vol. 143, c. 23.]

We have been working together on this matter.

I apologise for the length of my reply, Mr. Speaker, but I am trying to answer all the questions. We are spending about £1 million a year on salmonella research and development. Since the new information became available to us, a working party has been considering all the research into salmonella. I hope to have its report shortly, then I can consider what further steps to take on R and D.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of a statutory code of practice as opposed to a voluntary code of practice. One can get a voluntary code of practice into operation much more quickly. We have had extensive discussions with the industry and it is clearly in its interests to have a voluntary code. However, I have not ruled out transferring the appropriate elements of the voluntary code on to a statutory footing. I have been considering that for some time.

I believe that my reply has covered most of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I must repeat that the best contribution that everyone can make, including the workers in the industry, is to give the public the clear message that only an extremely small proportion of eggs is affected. If they follow the chief medical officer's advice, the risk to the public should be very small indeed. Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Speaker : Order. I remind the House that this is a private Members' day and private Members' motions follow this--

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : And another statement.

Mr. Speaker : I was about to say that. The Minister has made a very detailed statement. There is also to be a related debate in the name of the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller) later this evening or possibly early tomorrow morning. I shall allow questions on this

Column 25

statement to go on until 4.15 pm. I ask hon. Members not to repeat questions that have been asked. We have already heard long statements from the Front Benches.

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that he and his officials deserve congratulations on coming to the House so soon with this comprehensive scheme? First, may we assume that egg producers who have already culled their hens will be covered by the scheme? Secondly, and more importantly, will my right hon. Friend look at the scheme again with a view to extending it if, at the end of four weeks and after the culling of 10 per cent. of the flock, the situation continues to be bad?

Mr. MacGregor : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I am sure that he will appreciate that a scheme of this sort usually takes months to complete correctly, and we have had to do it in a few days. Inevitably, there must be an element of rough justice if we are to get it into operation quickly.

As to whether egg producers who have already been affected will be covered, the thrust of the scheme, both on the egg and the laying hen side, is to deal with the present market and to get back to a more stable basis to enable the market to adjust to present demand. So we cannot get the payments through to every producer. By dealing with the problem, we shall, I hope, restore to the market as much stability as possible, which will mean that all egg producers, including those who have already been affected, will benefit. In that indirect sense, they are covered.

I cannot give my hon. Friend an assurance that I shall re-examine the situation after four weeks. I have said that we are faced with an exceptional circumstance in the market, and this scheme is designed in its totality to deal with that.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) : I am sure I am not the only hon. Member who is bemused at the sight of the Minister tackling the overhang of eggs.

Further to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), will the Minister clarify an important point? Is it right that no one who has culled birds until now and no one who has taken eggs off the farm at rock bottom prices until now will benefit from the compensation? Is it only a future scheme?

As a matter of long-term policy, since we cannot open a newspaper nowadays without reading about some food or other that is dangerous to eat, will the Ministry, in the context of lower food production in Europe, encourage a return to more natural and less artificial means of production, especially in feedstuffs?

Mr. MacGregor : On the first point, what I meant by "overhang" is fairly clear. I meant that there is a significant surplus of eggs on the market which affects all egg producers at present--and all those with flocks. That is the problem that I am addressing. Payments will not be made to producers who have already culled flocks. One cannot do that-- [Hon. Members :-- "Why?"] I do not think it would be right to do that. We have moved with great speed. But all producers who have had to take action already and who are in a difficult position will benefit from these measures indirectly, and much more than if we had not taken them.

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman about food. A good deal more of my Department's resources is now devoted to ensuring food safety and to dealing with

Column 26

all these aspects. However, the right hon. Gentleman's reference to more natural feeds needs to be taken in context. With regard to salmonella, free-range eggs are no different from battery hen eggs.

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston) : Will my right hon. Friend calm fears outside the House that, because so many hens have already been slaughtered and hen producers have gone out of business, there may in future be a severe shortage of eggs, with the result that the price will increase considerably? I assure my right hon. Friend that no self- respecting housewife can do her job without a good supply of eggs in the kitchen.

Mr. MacGregor : I could not agree more with my hon. Friend's closing remarks. I hope that housewives will continue to buy eggs exactly as they have in the past, taking note of the chief medical officer's advice and using normal hygiene practices in the kitchen. That is the best way to ensure that the industry remains viable, as all of us would wish it to be.

On existing producers, the plain fact is that we have acted as quickly as possible. A scheme like this has never been introduced as quickly before. The scheme is the best way of helping existing producers.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington) : Has the Minister seen reports that some egg producers are keeping hens at low temperatures in the dark for most of the day? Will he confirm that that is in breach of his Department's welfare codes for battery hens? Will he urgently remind producers of that and of the fact that if they disregard the codes they are open to prosecution?

Mr. MacGregor : All producers should abide by the welfare codes.

Mr. Ralph Howell (Norfolk, North) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that this problem was caused by misinformation and by the incompetence of a Minister? Does he accept that those who have suffered should be fully compensated and that his statement is totally unsatisfactory?

Mr. MacGregor : I have come forward very promptly with measures to assist the egg industry, and I have done everything that I can to get over the facts about eggs and to reassure the public about all the measures that we have taken and the measures that they should take.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South) : In view of the Minister's clear admission that there were more than 1,000 cases of salmonella food poisoning associated with eggs in the first 10 months of this year, and in view of his Department's admission that in 1987 no less than 28 per cent. of imported animal protein was affected by salmonella, will the Minister tell us on what date he first warned Parliament and the country about the dangers of salmonella?

Mr. MacGregor : The chief medical officer issued the advice on 26 August, and since then I have been taking steps to deal with the problem. It is important to keep these matters in context. There have always been cases of food poisoning caused by salmonella. It exists in most other countries, too, and we have tried to do all that we can to reduce it. The number of cases to which the right hon. Gentleman referred should be contrasted with the fact that the British people have been consuming 30

Column 27

million eggs a day. The vast majority of people, taking the normal precautions that everyone takes, have been eating eggs perfectly safely.

I accept that we must tighten the rules on importing food protein, and that is what I am doing. But, subject to checking, I believe that none of that protein contained the salmonella enteritidis strain that has caused the present difficulty.

Sir Richard Body (Holland with Boston) : Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), does my right hon. Friend accept that I have made no allegation? Does he agree that egg producers are worried by two external hygiene factors over which they have no control? First, they are concerned about what the feed manufacturers do. So long as some of the manufacturers put into their compounds bits and pieces of dead animals, surely they should contribute to the £17 million that the taxpayer will have to pay.

Secondly, many egg producers are concerned about what is now going on in hatcheries and whether drugs such as tylosin, which are extensively used to suppress salmonella and other diseases, are continuing to work. Will my right hon. Friend consider this matter urgently?

Mr. MacGregor : We have been urgently considering these matters. Protein processing plants must abide by the conditions of the Diseases of Animals (Protein Processing) Order 1981. We have increased the amount of inspection and monitoring and such plants are now being inspected by my officials on a regular three-monthly basis, in addition to any monitoring that they do themselves. Where salmonella contamination is found in any of the plants' production, a notice is served on the plant, requiring it to ensure that all the product conforms with the required bacteriological standard, which means no salmonella within a specific time, after which a reinspection visit takes place. I am seeking to tighten those measures.

However, one of the problems to which I referred earlier is that salmonella strains can enter through the environment, for example, through wild birds. They are sometimes difficult to eradicate in plants and lorries, so there is always the problem of reinfection which no country has yet been able to find a way of overcoming. I am anxious that we should do everything possible in that connection, and I have discussed the matter with Ministers in other countries. My vets are in regular contact with scientists in other countries, but the problem remains.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East) : Will the Minister tell us what the destruction of eggs means? Can he guarantee that none of the affected eggs will be recycled? Is he aware that it costs producers about £90 to produce a certificate saying that their eggs are salmonella-free? What assistance will he give to producers for such certification, what help will he give to retailers who have been badly hit by these problems, and will he introduce a programme of salmonella eradication for the poultry industry in general?

Finally, as the Minister is responsible for fisheries, is he aware of the massive destruction of the fishing industry by quota cuts? Will he introduce a similar rescue package for fisheries?

Column 28

Mr. MacGregor : Destruction means that the eggs will be destroyed or incinerated mainly in local authority plants. They will not be recycled. This measure is directed at the immediate needs and, therefore, is the right one.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North) : Has the Minister considered carefully the calamitous position of the egg industry in Northern Ireland? Will he confirm that, whatever may be said of the industry in the rest of the United Kingdom, it has a clean bill of health in Northern Ireland? Has he considered the fact that, when this country joined the EEC, the egg industry in Northern Ireland had a laying flock of 10 million? It is now 3.3 million and is down to rock bottom. Does he realise that 1,000 jobs in the industry and 2,500 jobs that spin off from the industry are at stake in Northern Ireland? May I insist today on compensation for those who have already culled their flocks and stress that they will be exasperated by not receiving it?

Mr. MacGregor : The measures that we have taken are the most practical ; they are right. It is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but I believe that the hon. Gentleman's comment about salmonella enteritidis in Northern Ireland is correct. The measures that I have taken today are designed to assist the industry in the current market situation in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere.

Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy) : The Minister must be aware that he has shown scant concern for the 1,000 people or more who have been certified as suffering from salmonellosis as a result of the ingestion of eggs and for the many who died as a result of the disease. Is he now prepared to accept the departmental responsibility for the shameful cover- up that has occurred in this country for years over the extent of salmonellosis in poultry flocks? If not, is he prepared to do the honourable thing and resign, like the former Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie)?

Mr. MacGregor : There has been no cover-up. We have been absolutely clear about this matter, and I have taken the action that I believe is now required. There has been no complacency.

The hon. Gentleman's question about deaths raises a very complex matter. None of the 26 deaths recorded in the public health laboratory service figures can be directly attributed to eggs or poultry. However, the balance of probability is that a proportion will be. It is not clear that only egg infection has resulted in a death. The matter is very complex and it is difficult to get figures. However, the deaths are not on the scale, by a long way, that some people have suggested.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is creating an expensive precedent because consumers may decide, on grounds of hygiene or safety, not to buy many products? With regard to restoring confidence, is my right hon. Friend aware that many people will believe that a voluntary code of practice, given the industry's history, is not satisfactory? There should be a statutory code of practice.

Mr. MacGregor : Clearly I considered my right hon. Friend's first point very carefully. Knowing my interest in achieving value for money, I am sure that my right hon. Friend realises that I considered it very carefully. I

Column 29

concluded that, in the exceptional circumstances facing the industry now, it was right to take these measures. The measures are limited absolutely to the exceptional circumstances and to the state of the market partly to ensure that they are not regarded as a precedent.

It was necessary to produce a new code of practice for the industry to deal with the kind of situation that we could see resulting from salmonella enteritidis about which we have held urgent talks with the industry. The matters are complex, and we decided that it was important to get the code of practice out quickly. That was arranged, and the first code of practice came out on 5 December. That does not rule out a statutory code. It was important to get the arrangements in place quickly. It is clearly in the industry's interests to follow the arrangements, and it has assured us that it will. I agree with my right hon. Friend that we should consider urgently, as we are doing at the moment, which parts of the code could be made statutory.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth) : I recognise the plight of egg producers and the Government's deplorable record on research in food hygiene, but will the Minister clear up the confusion that has arisen from the Government's advertisement? Is he aware that thousands of housewives have already made their Christmas cakes and many of them will have used marzipan and icing containing raw eggs? Is he also prepared to reassure the House about these matters because commercial food producers do not appear to be mentioned and appear not to use raw eggs in the manufacture of marzipan and royal icing? Is there not confusion which would justify yet another expensive advertisement in the national press?

Mr. MacGregor : Commercial producers of those substances and of things like mayonnaise use pasteurised eggs, which are safe. They are obliged to use such eggs to ensure that their products are safe and are not included in the warning about raw eggs. Housewives should be careful about using raw eggs in the home.

Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West) : I give a warm welcome to the measures announced this afternoon by my right hon. Friend, and I assure him that his statement will be seen by egg producers as a meaningful gesture to sort out an awful situation which was not of their making. Does he agree that it is very much in the consumers' interests that the measures should be taken, because without them there is no doubt that the supply of eggs would end and the price of eggs would probably go through the ceiling?

Did my right hon. Friend read the front page article in this week's Mail on Sunday which said that 573 eggs had been purchased in 106 different outlets but none was found to contain salmonella? Does he agree that it is probably true to say that more poisoning takes place in the home than in the food chain?

Mr. MacGregor : I am glad that my hon. Friend concentrated on the consumers' interest, because that has been uppermost in our minds. It ought to be borne in mind that the industry has no interest in not carrying through all the advice, recommendations and our statutory conditions because very few products depend more on return sales than eggs. It is therefore essential that we minimise all the risks from eggs. Today's measures have been taken very much in the consumers' interests.

Column 30

In reply to the previous question I said that housewives should be careful about using raw eggs. Of course they should not use raw eggs in uncooked food. I want to make that correction. We have said that throughout, and I want to make that absolutely clear.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) : I do not believe that the Minister's statement today will solve the egg industry's problem. The Government are telling us not to eat soft-boiled eggs and not to give them to babies or frail people. That means that there is something deeply wrong. Today the Minister has given some money to egg producers, but he has not made it conditional for them to clean up their act.

I do not believe that the decline in egg sales has anything to do with the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). People know now that there is deep infection in the egg industry. They will not buy eggs in the numbers that they used to until we are assured that the industry has been cleaned up. Has the Minister seen the front page of The Guardian today which contains an article in which Professor Richard Lacey, of Leeds university, says that one person a week may be dying and 3,000 people a week may be affected by eggs? The Minister speaks too much for the farmer. Most of the people in this country are consumers, and they are not satisfied.

Mr. MacGregor : I absolutely reject the charge that I speak only for the farmer. I have paid every bit as much attention to the consumer. I see the interests of the farmer and the consumer as being identical because the one very much depends on the other. I reject that charge absolutely.

With regard to egg infection, I plead with the hon. Lady and all Opposition Members who have referred to the workers in the industry to get this into perspective. There are problems of food poisoning in most foods if people do not take the proper precautions. There have always been problems in many other areas of human activity. The risk in relation to eggs is very small indeed and it can be made very much smaller--minuscule--if the appropriate steps are taken according to the chief medical officer's advice.

Although it is not a matter directly for me, I have not seen figures to confirm what the hon. Lady has said. I have given the figures from the public health laboratory service. They are the official Government figures available to me. It is important that people return to a proper sense of perspective and balance. As with all other food, that involves taking the proper steps in the kitchen, and the chief medical officer's advice has been directed to that.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham) : The speed of my right hon. Friend's statement this afternoon will be greatly welcomed in Shropshire where business men, as well as egg producers, are at risk. Many vital jobs that they provide in rural areas are threatened. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House about the exports of British produce and the safeguards to prevent unfair continental competition exacerbating a problem which it ill-behoves hon. Members to blow out of proportion?

Mr. MacGregor : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The answer is yes.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) : Does the Minister accept that his statement is no help to small egg producers who have already had to cull perhaps half or more of their flocks? How on earth can they benefit from today's announcement? Why is it not possible for the Minister to

Column 31

backdate for two weeks compensation or payments available for culling to help those people? Has he taken advice from the Law Officers about the liability of the Government or individual Ministers to compensation payments through the courts for people who have undoubtedly suffered and who will receive nothing from today's announcement?

Mr. MacGregor : I make it clear, as I did on Friday, that the arrangements imply no acceptance of legal liability on the Government's part. I have naturally been concerned about the position of small producers, but one must consider the practical problems of bringing help quickly. There are 35,000 producers and 3,100 egg packers, and that is why it is practical and sensible to concentrate payments on egg packers. In the time available, I tried to think matters through as much as was humanly possible. Both measures combined are directed at the real problems, which are the surplus of eggs in the market and the risk of continuing surplus if the flock remains at its present size--which is the reason for the second measure. Both are designed to bring stability back to the market, which is the best way of helping the small producer as quickly as possible.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) : Will my right hon. Friend comment on the monitoring of imported eggs, where it appears from his remarks the risks are equivalent but the new safeguards and codes of practice cannot apply?

Mr. MacGregor : I shall have to consider that matter. I know that there are measures. I shall write to my hon. Friend about them.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) : Does the Minister realise that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) said, not that most eggs are infected, but that most egg production is infected? Was she right or wrong?

As the Minister managed to find £17 million to give to egg producers, why was he unable to find any money for the fishing industry, which is affected by the same Department and which will lose out? The Government side of the House is infected with farmers ; there is not a fisherman among them.

Mr. MacGregor : That simply is not the case. On the hon. Gentleman's first point, from the evidence available to me, it is not the case that most egg production is infected. What is clear from all the evidence that we have been able to gather--and this is the important point from the consumer's point of view and therefore the one that I stressed--is that most eggs are not infected. That is the risk that concerns the general public, and that is why I have been saying throughout, to reassure the general public, that it is not the case. I thought that the whole House would wish me to give such an assurance in order to assist the industry and to reassure the general public about eggs. That is what the advertisement is designed to do. The hon. Gentleman knows that we fought extremely hard, and very successfully, to get the best possible deal for the fishing industry this year. As a result of the whole package, the white fish industry's quotas are down by about 10 per cent. on the total catch that it was allowed for the same white fish this year. We do not know what market prices will be next year, but they may rise.

Column 32

Mr. Speaker : I ask right hon. and hon. Members to restrict their questions to eggs, and not to deal with fish.

Next Section

  Home Page