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Column 174Since the statement, there has been further surplus egg production which will take another £150,000 out of the available money. That is the rate at which surplus eggs are being produced. By Boxing day, a week today, at the current rate of production, a further £2,720,000 will be needed to purchase surplus production. By new year's eve a further £1,875,000 will have been used to purchase surplus eggs. If we assume that the second measure--the culling of 4 million birds--will take £1 per head, by the end of next week the £17 million will have been used up and we shall still be producing 15 million surplus eggs a day.
If the Minister had come to the Dispatch Box with some humility and said that he was prepared to review the scheme at a later date in the light of take-up and so on, I would not be particularly concerned. However, he made it clear that £17 million is the maximum amount to be made available. In the coming weeks the small producers, those who have been hit hardest during the past two weeks, will be hit even harder.
I have already mentioned the second element of the scheme--the culling of part of the flock. I understand that the culling of 10 per cent. of the flock will be put in hand during the next four weeks. However, the British Poultry Federation and the National Farmers Union--the hon. Member for Bromsgrove alluded to his constituency experience--suggested that between 20 per cent. and 25 per cent. of the flock will have to be culled if production is to be reduced to a level at which surplus eggs can be controlled by the money available. I suspect that the cull will be less than required, which is singularly unfortunate for the small producer. The large producer will be prepared to gamble over the next forthnight or three weeks in the hope that the price of eggs will stabilise and that moult will be induced, and will take other measures to control production, but the small producer will be faced with accepting the outgoers scheme or going bankrupt. Again the small producer will suffer.
There is much unfairness in the scheme announced today because the industry has already made considerable losses. I was speaking to a local egg producer last weekend, who told me that he has been incurring a loss of 10p or 15p on every dozen eggs that he sells. It has been reported that producers have had to slaughter tens of thousands of hens that were not in production. The statement offers them nothing, and if people were forced by economics to take action last week or the week before, no compensation will be available, which is unfair. I hope that when the Minister considers the details of the scheme he will take particular note of that.
The third element of the package was to restore the public's confidence--a point of which the hon. Members for Bromsgrove and Lancashire, West made much play. It is important to restore confidence in egg production, otherwise no amount of short-term measures will be successful and the industry will be decimated, which Labour Members do not want.
I suspect that there is such a deep and fundamental conflict between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health that it is not possible to reconcile the two conflicting approaches, and for that fundamental reason the statement made by the Minister this afternoon was defective.
Despite all the opportunities that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has had and all the questons that have been asked, a statement has not been made about the level of infection among home-produced
Column 175eggs. I remind the hon. Member for Lancashire, West that we continually import eggs from Spain, Belgium and Denmark. The hon. Gentleman can shake his head, but we continually import eggs and should be concerned about the problems of salmonella not only in this country but western Europe.
This afternoon, significantly, the Minister said that all the evidence was that the incidence of salmonella enteritidis was very low in the laying flock. The Minister chose to say not that the incidence of salmonella in eggs was low but that all the evidence was that salmonella enteritidis was very low in the laying flock. If that is so, what is the Government's evidence and when will they make it publicly available?
I suspect that the truth is that MAFF has conducted no extensive survey among the laying flock and that it is relying on reports that it has received from environmental health departments of local authorities up and down the land. If that is the case, MAFF has a clear responsibility to publish the information that it has, and, as the hon. Member for Bromsgrove said, to identify those producers who currently have infected stock or are known to be placing salmonella-infected eggs on to the national market. That is a simple step. In view of the grave crisis that is now threatening the egg industry and the fact that it extends across all sectors, as has been rightly pointed out, whether or not they are guilty and whether or not they are producing clean products, there is a clear opportunity for the Ministry to take action to ensure that that information comes into the public domain.
However, there will still be a doubt remaining in the minds of the public about whether they are receiving honest treatment at the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Given the Ministry's actions over the past several years, that is not surprising. In 1981, the then newly elected Conservative Government deliberately decided to weaken the code that had been the subject of consultation with the industry until 1979. That showed one fundamental truth, and that is that the too-close relationship between MAFF and the National Farmers Union is not in the long -term interests of MAFF or of the National Farmers Union. It is certainly not in the long-term or short-term interests of the consumer, because the consumer is now suffering.
Mr. Hind : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many Conservative Members are as concerned as he is about this matter? We have not been approached by the NFU. I have been approached by my own local consumers. The NFU has not spoken to me about it. That is the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller). There has been an awful lot of mischief-making in the press about the matter.
Mr. Ron Davies : I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I am not talking about representations that he might or might not have received during the past couple of weeks or so, I am talking about the relationship which has historically existed between the Conservative party and the National Farmers Union. I am talking about a series of events that took place in 1981, which are the precise cause of the problems that we now have in the industry.
Column 176A report in today's edition of The Independent refers to the Government's decision to reduce funding for research into salmonella. It states :
"It stopped the research at a time of crisis in public confidence in the food and farming industries, but also in the face of increasing numbers of academic papers suggesting that it is the Ministry's own commitment to the poultry and feed industries which has slowed important reforms in the regulation of the poultry and egg business.
In 1986, a vet employed by the Ministry of Agriculture published a paper which recorded the failure of regulations introduced in 1981. They had been framed to safeguard the public from salmonella, had been weakened after industry protests at their cost, and were finally brought into force in much weaker form than intended.
The regulations have not worked. At least 10 per cent. of samples of the animal products produced in this country and fed to poultry is contaminated with salmonella ; up to a third of samples of such products which are imported were infected in 1985."
That accusation was substantiated by the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body). Another article in The Independent states :
"The Tory MP for Boston with Holland, Sir Richard Body, a former chairman of the Commons Agriculture Committee and a farmer, fears that guidelines issued in 1981 were weakened after pressure from the feed processing industry. He said : I was told on very good authority that there was a much stronger order being drafted. The idea was that all poultry should be examined for salmonella, because those who had been carrying out an examination believed that the amount of salmonella in the birds was rather serious.' "
Those were the comments of an hon. Member who is respected on both sides of the House. Moreover, the vet is not an anonymous leaker of information ; he is Dr. Matthews, who wrote in the State Veterinary Journal :
"There was considerable resistance to these proposals". John Field, the chairman of the United Kingdom Renderers Association said :
"The original proposals were very expensive, but there was a distinct change of heart when the Conservatives came into office. They were happy to drop the idea of a code and settle for random testing."
Those comments appeared in yestereday's edition of The Observer. In case there is any doubt about the veracity of those statements, let me refer the House to a draft document produced by the Secretary of State for Wales, who was then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That document, produced in April 1980 by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland and the Welsh Office Agriculture Department, said :
"The earlier proposals were formulated on the basis that all domestic plants processing animal protein for inclusion in animal feed should be licensed. Licences would be issued only if the process itself was capable of killing salmonellae and other disease organisms and the layout, construction and operation of the processing plant were such that re- contamination of the finished product was prevented. Similar standards were to be required of the imported product. The Departments wish to record their indebtedness and to express their thanks to the organisations for the response which was made in the ensuing correspondence and discussions on those proposals."
That is what is supposed to have happened, but the report continues :
"The new proposals reflect the wish of Ministers that in the present economic climate the Industry should itself determine how best to produce a high-quality product, and that the role of Government should be restricted to prescribing a standard for the product and to enforcing observance of that standard. Ministers take the view that this simpler approach would have
Column 177the incidental advantage of enabling the Industry to prepare for more stringent measures which might have to be taken at some future date."
What happened to that enforcement? Inspections were carried out and it was recognised that salmonella was contaminating feed that was being fed to the British poultry flock. In a third of cases, infected feed was being distributed but in not one of the cases was a prosecution instigated by the Ministry. That is the Ministry's record in this matter.
It was little surprise when increasing evidence of salmonella emerged earlier in 1988. The statement in August this year by the Government's chief medical officer warned the public of the dangers of salmonella and-- as successive Ministers have told us in parliamentary answers--the rise in salmonella reporting was constant during the summer months. But no urgent action was taken then. The Government's only response was to cut research. Today's edition of The Independent says :
"The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is directly responsible for blocking progress in the elimination of salmonella infection in the 35 million laying hens, and nearly 500 million table fowl slaughtered annually in this country.
As the present scare was gaining momentum last month, the Ministry told food scientists in the government-sponsored Institute of Food Research, near Bristol, that it would no longer fund their research into providing birds with a natural protection from the salmonella bacteria."
That is not much of a response. The Government recognised the increasing incidence of the disease, but the only action that they were prepared to take was to stop specific research designed to protect the laying flock from the problem of salmonella. They did not tighten the codes on rendering or on producing flocks. All that they did was to cut research. It was not until that slip by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, whether inadvertent or calculated, that we saw any action from MAFF. It was not until 5 December--several days after the hon. Lady made her statement--that the new code of practice was introduced by MAFF.
That new code still does not have statutory force or additional resources to ensure that it is properly followed. This week's edition of Farmers Weekly notes that we are due for yet another code--presumably a super-code. It states :
"Farmers cannot guarantee that their eggs and chickens are salmonella-free by testing, according to a veterinary spokesman. In an unattributable briefing, arranged by the Ministry of Agriculture, the spokesman told FARMERS WEEKLY that the guarantee could only be offered by testing every bird and egg to destruction. The only way to minimise the risk of infection was by following a new code of practice for commercial laying flocks, due to be published by the ministry next week."
Will the Minister tell us what status that new super-code will have? Will it be mandatory? Will producers be required to state that they are complying with the code? Will the Ministry take it on itself to publish the list of those producers who comply with the code? If there is to be a prospect of restoring public confidence in the poultry industry, that is the course of action that must be taken. I have plenty more arguments to deploy, if my hon. Friends wish me to entertain them for longer. Let us have a look at the dispute between MAFF and the Department of Health which led to the resignation of the Under-Secretary of State. There can be only one of two possibilities. Either she was wrong, and therefore properly resigned or she was right, and therefore improperly resigned.
Column 178If the Under-Secretary of State was wrong in her statement, why was that statement not immediately disowned by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Why did he not on the Monday make it abundantly clear that she was inaccurate in her statement? If he had done that, the industry would have been spared a fortnight of heartbreak and taxpayers would have been saved at least £18 million. It may well have been that the hon. Lady was right. If she was, it merely demonstrates that, despite all the lessons of the past 12 months, there is still an air of complacency in the Department. It gives me no great pleasure to say that I fear that the measures introduced today will not restore confidence in the industry or reassure consumers, and that what is intended to be a short-term palliative and a bailing-out measure for the industry for this month will be the start of a much longer, sorrier saga.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder) : We have had an interestingdebate and I shall do my best in the remaining time to answer as many of the questions as I can.
I start by expressing my personal sorrow and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends at the news of the death of the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John). He was much respected on both sides of the House, not least for his knowledgeable contributions to agriculture debates. His death is a sad loss to the House and to his party. I should be grateful if our condolences could please be conveyed to his family.
This has been a well-informed and helpful debate. I must express my appreciation to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller) for initiating it, and at the same time to express my recognition of his staunch advocacy on behalf of the egg industry during the past fortnight. He has not been alone in that and here tonight are other hon. Members whose interest has been apparent throughout that period. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West (Mr. Hind), who has spoken, and the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), who has spoken from the Opposition Front Bench.
Perhaps, it would be helpful if I were to provide the House with some facts and figures about the significance of the egg industry to the economy of the United Kingdom. The output of the egg industry is worth about £500 million a year at the farm gate and perhaps twice that at retail level. There are about 35,000 farmers who depend in whole or in part on their earnings from eggs, and more than 3,000 egg packing stations provide employment for at least 15,000 people. Of course, a great many other people are engaged in distributing, marketing and selling eggs after they have been packed.
It is not a small, unimportant industry with which we are concerned. However, we all acknowledge that it is an industry with a problem. It is a fact that the number of outbreaks of food poisoning linked to eggs has increased this year, and that the number of people from whom the new salmonella enteritidis phage type 4 has been isolated has increased. Indeed, 51 outbreaks this year is 51 too many. My views on this were made quite clear to the industry very shortly after I became involved with the issues and before the events of the past fortnight caused a
Column 179slide in the demand for eggs. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health have stressed that the problem must be kept in perspective. The number of reported cases of food poisoning from salmonella linked to eggs is very small by comparison with the 30 million eggs consumed a day and the 200 million consumed a week. By the summer, it was clear that there was a new and growing problem from salmonella enteritidis phage 4 type linked to eggs. As a result of that information, the Government acted immediately to tackle the problem at every point in the production chain. Among other initiatives, that led to the publication of codes of practice to apply to commercial and breeding flocks. However, those two codes of practice are only the start and we have been preparing other steps, which will include--as my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced this afternoon while I was at an Agriculture Council meeting in Brussels--more stringent bacteriological monitoring of animal protein for animal feed, the registering of breeding flocks and hatcheries for hygiene control purposes and the strengthening of the licensing provision related to imported animal protein. Those steps are designed to tackle the problem of this particular strain of salmonella and to reduce infection of the egg-laying flock.
My Department has also been working closely with the chief medical officer, Sir Donald Acheson, and officials of the Department of Health over the advice given to consumers. Some reports suggested that the advice of the chief medical officer has been questioned. I do not believe that to be so. Sir Donald Acheson is a most distinguished figure in the medical profession. His advice is excellent and it should be followed in full. I should also emphasise that, in the past two weeks, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I worked together closely during the absence of my right hon. Friend on urgent Government business in Montreal and Brussels.
The uncertainty over the implications of salmonella enteritidis has caused a sharp decline in egg sales. There is no doubt that that has caused acute practical and financial difficulties for the egg industry. As my right hon. Friend told the House earlier today, the Government have decided, in these exceptional circumstances, to introduce two short-term measures. The first will provide a payment to egg packers for the destruction of surplus eggs at the rate of 30p a dozen eggs on up to 1.1 million cases over a four-week period. There are 360 eggs in a case. That represents nearly half the normal supply. The second measure will be introduced to help the industry to reduce the size of the egg-laying flock. It will provide for payment for a bird aged between 18 weeks and 30 weeks. The scheme will enable up to 4 million hens--roughly equivalent to 10 per cent. of the laying flock--to be slaughtered under the Ministry's supervision. Those two short-term measures, taken together, are designed to assist the egg industry to adjust to new market conditions. I shall cover the details of the scheme later when I answer hon. Members' questions.
We hope that the actions that we have announced today, in conjunction with the advertising campaign that sets out the advice of the chief medical officer and presents
Column 180the facts to consumers, will quickly help to restore order to the egg market in the interests of consumers and everyone working in that important sector of the food industry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lancashire, West highlighted the question of the poor handling of food and the effect that that has on hygiene. It is true that poor kitchen hygiene is an important factor in causing food poisoning--it always has been. A campaign for hygiene in the home will be launched in January in conjunction with the Department of Health. A leaflet will be made available nationally through supermarkets, doctors' surgeries, health visitors and libraries. Further initiatives are planned for schools and catering establishments. We must continue, however, to tackle the problem at every stage in the chain, and that is our intention.
I was asked about the tests on eggs carried out by producers and packers. The level of infection in flocks is very low. An enormous number of eggs would have to be tested to be able to say safely that the statistical probability was that a flock was salmonella-free. I was asked about the feed for chickens. The recycling of animal protein in processing plants, which has happened for many years, is covered by the Diseases of Animals (Protein Processing) Order 1981. The rendering involved utilises high temperatures which should kill salmonella organisms.
I was asked where salmonellae have been found. Salmonella enteritidis has been isolated from the few layer-breeding flocks and commercial laying flocks. The organism may be found in the gut or in the ovary. The most effective means of detecting the organism in a flock is by taking samples from the environment in a poultry house. It has also been isolated from animal feed on rare occasions. It was asked whether these tests were reliable. There are two sorts of test. The first is used to determine whether salmonella is prevalent in the environment--the one I am discussing now. The second is used to determine whether live chickens suffer from the strain of salmonella under scrutiny this morning. The environmental tests are reliable. I am told by the chief veterinary officer that the bacteriological isolation techniques are extremely sensitive and reliable. Use is made of a pre-enrichment technique to ensure that latent salmonellae present are encouraged to grow on the culture plate.
I have been asked whether there was a simple test to discover whether live chickens suffered from this strain of salmonella. Again, I am informed by the chief veterinary officer that no simple test has yet been devised anywhere to determine this. We must bear in mind--this has been well known for a long time--that there are about 1, 800 different types of salmonella.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove suggested that we are not taking enough laying hens out of the laying flock. This is a matter of fine judgment. My hon. Friend will have noted that we are paying to take young birds at the beginning of their laying cycle out of the flock. To have paid for the culling of old hens would have run the risk of paying farmers to do something that they would have done anyway. We hope that taking out young birds will have the maximum effect on over-supply, and it means that the effects will last for about a year. If we take out too many young birds now, and the market recovers sufficiently in a year's time, we shall merely have opened the door to a flood of imports. Indeed, that fear was expressed in the debate.
Column 181I was also asked whether it was possible to use the zoonoses order to follow up cases that are reported to the state veterinary service. I am informed that the order is being used to pursue cases of reported salmonella poisoning, and that it will go on being used in that way.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly asked whether there were controls on the domestic production of processed animal protein. I have already covered that, but I emphasise that all protein processing plants are being inspected by my officials on a regular three-monthly basis, in addition to any monitoring carried out by the plants themselves. If salmonella contamination is found in any of the plants' production, a notice is served on the owners requiring them to ensure that all the product conforms with the required bacteriological standard--that is to say, there must be no salmonella--within a specific time, after which a re-inspection visit takes place.
One of my hon. Friends asked about the number of food poisoning cases during the past few years. The figure for 1987--I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food mentioned this during his statement--is about 20,000 reported cases of food poisoning. In 1988, we would expect an increased proportion of cases to be caused by salmonella enteriditis and for the first 10 months of the year there have been 1,000 reported cases of that form of food poisoning in eggs.
As I promised, I shall deal with some of the details of the scheme and the questions that have arisen. There is some doubt about when the egg industry scheme comes into operation. It will come into operation on Wednesday 21 December. From that date, packers will be able to offer quantities of eggs equal to their weekly throughput. Many people have asked how they should apply. Packers in England should apply to their Ministry regional office ; those in Wales should apply to the Welsh Office ; and those in Scotland and Northern Ireland should apply to the respective Agriculture Departments. It has been asked, although not during this debate, why only packers are involved in the scheme. Helping packers to take their surplus eggs off the market is the simplest and quickest way to help all producers. Once those eggs have been removed, the market will be strengthened and packers will be able to buy more eggs. But producers will benefit directly under the scheme for the slaughter of pullets. The scheme that was formulated during the week would normally have taken officials in the Ministry several weeks, if not months, to formulate properly. In this case, we decided to go through the packers.
There is anxiety about a public health risk from the eggs that will be destroyed. There should be no health risk because the eggs will be either buried or incinerated, under supervision, at approved sites. I shall try to answer some of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Caerphilly about the slaughter of hens scheme. The immediate aim of the scheme is to assist egg producers to get rid of hens that they no longer require because of the fall in the egg market. More generally, the scheme aims to restore a better balance between supply and demand by removing up to 4 million hens. That will help all egg producers, including those who do not participate in the scheme. Egg producers will be invited to apply to the Ministry saying how many hens they wish to slaughter. There will be a minimum of 500. Some scaling-down of applications will be done if the total of applications exceeds the ceiling of 4 million for the United
Column 182Kingdom, of which 3,456,000 is the figure for England and Wales. Depending on uptake, the scheme will cost up to £6.8 million in compensation, plus about £1.2 million for operational costs. Some hon. Members asked today why the figure of 4 million has been chosen. It is because it represents 10 per cent. of the total laying flock and up to 45 per cent. of birds in that age group. It should be enough to allow the industry to adjust to reduced demand. We have chosen the age group from 18 to 30 weeks because we want to take out those birds in the early part of egg production and thereby produce the maximum possible effect on supply. Any owner of domestic fowls who wishes to slaughter 500 or more eligible birds can apply for the benefits of the scheme.
There is concern about how the carcases will be disposed of. That will depend on individual circumstances, but local authorities, including water authorities, will be consulted on the most appropriate means to do that.
Mr. Hind : Does my hon. Friend accept that egg producers are faced with the prospect of digging holes and disposing of the carcases, and that the scheme that he is proposing will greatly help them to dispose of the 2 million carcases?
Mr. Ryder : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I confirm that that is the case. All sorts of advice and assistance will be given by vets, local authorities and local MAFF regional offices which are receiving instructions from us.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly raised a number of further questions. I am trying to cover as many as possible and I apologise to the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. McKay) for delaying his debate, but it is important, in view of the number of questions asked during the debate--
The hon. Member for Caerphilly asked whether the schemes were deficient. I have tried to explain how the eggs will be destroyed. The process will last for not more than four weeks. In a brief meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Brussels earlier this evening, he asked me to emphasise the fact that it was a four-week period, that the final figures for the scheme had been announced and that there will be no change in Government policy. I know that the hon. Gentleman was anxious to know whether there were second thoughts on the Government's part, and I have it from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture that that is not the case.
I hope that, in my speech, which has lasted for about 30 minutes, I have answered most of the questions. If I have overlooked any questions, I shall be more than happy to answer them as soon as possible, either by letter or by any other means because it is important that everything should be clarified so that we can continue to remove the uncertainty for the sake of consumers.
The advertisement that appeared for the first time last Friday and ran over the weekend was intended to do just that. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and
Column 183my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health are using every available means at their disposal to clarify the matter. It is a far more technical and complex matter than many people perhaps appreciate. In many ways, it is a technical problem because it is a relatively new strain of salmonella and scientisits have no sure way of finding out about the strain in live hens. However, we are continuing to take every possible step to ensure that we reduce the number of outbreaks of this strain of salmonella. I agree wholeheartedly with the chief medical officer that, until the number of such outbreaks begins to decline, we shall not return to 100 per cent. confidence in the egg market. That is why I know that the industry itself is most anxious, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove said, to tackle the problem as well. Doubtless we will have other opportunities to debate this matter in future. I hope that I have answered all the questions that were raised. I reiterate that if there are any outstanding matters that I have not covered I shall be more than pleased to try to clarify them tomorrow.
Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : There is no issue between us in the House that, wherever and whenever hooliganism occurs, it must be dealt with. There is no doubt also that the reports show that the problem is growing in this country and elsewhere.
Hooliganism is not confined to any social group or to a particular area. Hooliganism is not only a problem for football, it is a problem for society. Reports in many newspapers clearly show the extent of the problem. There are headlines and reports such as :
"Seventy arrested as drunks clash with police in rural areas. Fifteen youths were questioned on Saturday at Shrewsbury. More than 40 people were arrested in York after attacks on police as youths spilled out of public houses
The first outbreak of trouble came at a country and western evening attended by 600 middle-aged enthusiasts
More than 1,000 police officers have been rendered unfit for service this year as a result of assaults in English and Welsh rural areas."
In Swindon, Bracknell, Woking, Bedhampton, Caterham, Bournemouth, Llanelli, Oxford and throughout the length and breadth of the country there are problems with vandalism and hooliganism.
This problem does not simply occur in sport and at football matches. In 1980 there was one death and 1,700 arrests at horse-racing fixtures, including 600 during royal Ascot. In rowing 290 people were arrested during the Oxford and Cambridge boat race and 140 during the Henley regatta week. Two years ago there was violence at the Tory party conference and the chairman apologised to CND for the damage to its exhibition stand. Some young Tories were even banned from staying at a hotel because of an outbreak of bad behaviour.
In 1987 there were 141,000 arrests for violence against the person and there were 559,000 arrests for criminal damage. Between 1986 and 1987 arrests for violence against the person in counties that do not have a first or second division football club increased, in Surrey by 25 per cent., in Norfolk by 29 per cent., and in Dorset by 27 per cent. In counties with first or second division football clubs there was an increase, in Merseyside over that period of 4 per cent., in London of 11 per cent. and in the west midlands of 1 per cent. Of the 3,700,000 reported crime in England and Wales in 1987, only 6,000 were in or around football grounds and they included payment dodgers, pickpockets, illegal parkers, illegal traders and drug arrests. Ostensibly it would appear that it is safer inside a football ground than outside one.
In 1980, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1988 the Opposition offered the Government parliamentary time to legislate on football violence. The Government failed to respond. Instead they passed legislation giving the police powers to stop and search people and vehicles travelling to football matches and they banned all alcohol at matches.
The Government now propose introducing an identity card scheme, against the advice of senior police officers, the Police Federation, football legislators, supporters' clubs, civil libertarians and civil liberty groups. The Government must believe that the scheme will be seen as a form of decisive action--whether or not it works. I do not blame the Government for that, because given the uproar that followed the Turin, Heysel, and Leyton
Column 185incidents, they had to be seen doing something. However, they must reconsider whether the scheme they propose is the most effective. The Government expect that, in time, the withdrawal of identity cards from the culprits will eliminate the problem, leaving football crowds free from violence, and parents and children free to enjoy the game in safety. It is an admirable aim, with which we all agree, but can it be achieved by the proposed scheme?
As a magistrate, I look to the scheme to provide something more than the power to fine offenders. Will it work, or will it mean taking unwarranted action against millions of football supporters, remembering that 99 per cent. of them do not indulge in violence? This week's issue of the Police Federation magazine advises. "Think again, Mr. Moynihan. The Report of Sports Minister's Colin Moynihan's Working Party on a National Membership Scheme for Football has come in for almost universal condemnation. Sadly, the strictures are deserved, for this is an extraordinary mish mash of good intentions and half baked nostrums. If the Government insists on using its majority to steamroller this scheme through Parliament, the results could be disastrous."
The report continues by remarking that the scheme will not work : "When it breaks down, it will do so on match days and give rise to the threat of even worse disorder than it seeks to suppress." Also highlighted is the likely reaction of a crowd of 50,000-plus supporters, such as that seen at Highbury earlier this month, which "if unable to gain admission because of delays at the turnstiles, does not have to guessed at The conclusion is inescapable that it is the Department of the Environment, responding to prompting from the Prime Minister's Policy Unit, which was on the working party, which has pushed this through against the best professional advice." That is the view of the Police Federation, whose officers will have to deal with the scheme's implementation.
As far as we can see, the identity system will comprise a central, computerised network of 92 linked terminals. An application for membership will be made on a form obtained at a post office, local shop or the club itself, and it must be submitted to the club of the applicant's choice together with two passport-style photographs. The application will be checked and entered on the central computer. How will it be known at that stage that the information given on the form is correct? No one will know because at that point there will be no checking system. Subsequently, the applicant's identity card will be posted to him. Only at that stage is there a check--that the address given is valid. It will depend on the cost to the individual of that system as to how many supporters will be lost to the game.
What about the casual supporter who decides, "It's a fine day--I'll go to the match"? The Minister is reported as telling a group of Conservative Members that that problem will be overcome by allowing applicants to register as casual supporters on the morning of the match they wish to attend. If that is so, how will their applications be checked--given that, otherwise, a period of seven days is required for that process?
I do not believe that people will go down and register in the morning. They will simply not go to the match. It is fine for those who can get into the car and spend half an hour going to fetch an application form, but few people in
Column 186my constituency have cars, and problems with bus services mean they will not go into town twice--once to get the form and once to attend the match.
Under the scheme children must be accompanied by their parents. But hundreds of young football fans do not go to matches with their parents : they go together in groups--not necessarily school groups ; they get together locally. At what age must they have an identity card? Will aged persons be exempt, and if so at what age? What will happen on the day of the match? The spectator goes along to the ground ; he puts his card into the machine ; he is identified by the central computer ; the turnstile is unlocked ; the identity card is given to the gate man ; the spectator is identified by his photograph, and he pays his money. All that takes a long time. Anyone who goes to football matches regularly has seen the thousands of people who go through the turnstiles in the last 15 or 20 minutes-- sometimes the last 10 minutes--before a major match. It is unbelievable. I do not think that a computerised system will be able to take that in its stride and be able to register and check all those people and let them through.
What if the card is rejected? What about the argument that that will cause? What if someone is not identified with the card that he presents, or the computer goes on the blink? All the problems that we are trying to remove from the football ground will be transferred back to the local community. Many supporters will not put up with the hassle, and there will be a further loss of custom as a result. A national opinion poll surveyed 947 people who went to football matches or said that they were interested in football. Asked how often they went to a league game nowadays nearly half the sample said never, 90 per cent. said once a month, 10 per cent. said every two or three months, 12 per cent. said only twice a season and 11 per cent. said that they went even less often than that. Of the 48 per cent. who never attended a league game nowadays over three quarters--79 per cent. --said that they had attended games in the past, while 20 per cent. of those interested in football had never attended a league game at all. Over half the respondents--56 per cent.--thought that a compulsory membership scheme would be a good idea, while 37 per cent. thought that it would be a bad idea. But of those who were closer to the game--those who actually went to football matches--54 per cent. thought that a compulsory scheme would be a bad idea. When they were asked whether they would apply for a membership card, 40 per cent. said no. That means that there will be a falling-off in attendance. Even if the system works, delays at turnstiles will lead to public order problems outside the ground. Standard practice is to open the gates in the last 15 minutes of any match. What will happen if disgruntled spectators are still outside? Those inside will be trying to get out while those outside are trying to get in. Both activities conflict with the law and with the conditions laid down on the safety certificates.
At some grounds turnstiles lead directly on to a busy road, with no possibility of resiting them. Moreover, it is always difficult to recruit suitable staff, and it will be more difficult if the system is brought in. Small clubs like mine in Barnsley, playing good, attractive football, are trying to increase attendance. They will run into financial difficulties in funding the scheme.
I understand, according to a story in one of tomorrow's newspapers, that a firm has offered to fund the scheme,
Column 187free of charge. However, there will be a cost and it will have to be looked into. Any loss of revenue because of loss of custom and a decrease in membership will lead to great concern and difficulties. Some of the directors to whom I have spoken recently have said that the difficulties will be so great that clubs such as Barnsley will go out of business.
As they have experienced very little trouble for many years, we have to ask why they should have to introduce a membership scheme to prevent trouble that is not being caused. No two clubs are alike, so different measures have to be adopted for each club. The clubs, in co-operation with the Government, have installed closed-circuit TV ; they have segregated the rival supporters ; they have introduced family areas and voluntary membership schemes ; they have adopted local plans that have been agreed with the police and the local authorities. Those measures have virtually eliminated all crowd disorder incidents. Those ideas can be built on, without the need to introduce an identity scheme. Cards do not catch, and never have caught, anyone.
As for Sheffield Wednesday's system--our nearest neighbour--all trains are met at the station and the football fans are escorted to the football ground. After the match they are escorted back to the trains. All coaches come off the motorway at junction 36, are put into convoys and escorted to the match. All alcohol is confiscated at those points. Sheffield Wednesday has had no trouble whatsoever for ages.
As a magistrate, I know that something is needed to deter football hooliganism. Fines do not deter. Why should we not use the magistrates' courts effectively? Why should they not be able to issue community orders each Saturday, or on each day that a match is played, for every offender? Millwall's idea is that, for every offender, the community order should state that work should be done at Millwall's football ground.
Why should we not expand the use of the probation service? The Government's booklet "Punishment, Custody and the Community" states that community service should be used and that the use of of the probation service should be extended, Why should not offenders be asked to report to the local police station on each day that a match is played? Why should investigations not be made at half time during matches to make sure that offenders are not at the match? Hooligans inside football grounds can be assumed to be hooligans outside football grounds. The use of the courts in that way would act as a deterrent.
The Police Federation said :
"Mrs. Thatcher's insistence that football hooliganism must be conquered reflects the feelings of the whole law-abiding public. All the more reason why such an objective needs something far, far more feasible than this lamentable miscarriage of judgement."
That is why many people believe that the identity card scheme will not work.