Home Page

Column 873

Points of Order

3.32 pm

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise with you a matter on which I hope that you will be able to give me and the House some guidance, which is the way in which the rights of hon. Members who represent their constituents is being infringed.

You may recall, Mr. Speaker, that on 10 November we debated some new guidelines with regard to immigration cases. Yesterday, I had cause to use those guidelines for the first time, in the case of a father wishing to stay in this country for a brief period in order to make long-term arrangements for the care of a four-year-old child who had been battered and abandoned by her mother. The father was refused leave of entry, but has been allowed to remain here for a couple of days.

I sought to raise the father's case with the Minister, under the guidelines, which say that a stay can be allowed if an hon. Member can demonstrate that

"there are exceptional and compelling circumstances which the immigration officer has had an opportunity to consider but has not taken sufficiently into account."--[ Official Report, 10 November 1988 ; Vol. 140, c. 520.]

I was first told that I was not allowed to raise this matter with the private office, although the guidelines say that that is almost the only sort of case that can be raised directly with the private office. I was then told that these circumstances were not exceptional and compelling because the junior civil servant who was involved in the case, and the immigration officer who first took the decision, had decided that these were not exceptional and compelling circumstances and that the case for a stop had not been made. That is a gross infringement of the rights of hon. Members, when those who take the initial decision pronounce on whether a case can be put to the Minister for careful and sustained consideration. I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker, about what hon. Members can do about this gross removal of their rights. If such a precedent was followed in other Departments, it would mean that hon. Members had no freedom to decide what cases they raised with Ministers.

Mr. Speaker : The hon. Lady has raised an individual case, which she should take up with the Department and Minister concerned. I cannot give her guidance on tactics but there are opportunities. I hope that she will seek them in order to raise the matter.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At Question Time today, the Secretary of State for Health grouped together with question No. 3 four other questions, two of which, by strict definition, were not even related to question No. 3. Do you agree that it is annoying when so many questions are taken together at one time, because it limits the rights of other Members to ask supplementary questions on what may be an important issue? May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to consider giving an informal judgment that a maximum of two questions may be taken with another question?

Mr. Speaker : That is not a matter for the Chair. It is up to the Department concerned to decide which questions should be grouped.

Column 874

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : It is an attack on a Tory Minister.

Mr. Speaker : Order. In some cases, when questions are grouped together, we are able to make better progress, and today we managed to deal with 14 questions in 40 minutes, which is not bad going.

Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance in connection with the private business listed for 7 o'clock this evening, the Avon Light Rail Transit Bill. It has been drawn to my attention that a letter is circulating among Conservative Members, signed by four of them, making specific allegations about my motives for opposing the Bill--[ Hon. Members :-- "Ooh."]--which are wholly untrue-- [Interruption.] I wish Tory Members would be quiet. A nursery is better behaved than they are. The letter makes specific allegations, which are wholly untrue, about my reason for opposing the Bill --for example, that Bristol city council, "a hard Left council"

Mr. Speaker : Order. The matter that the hon. Lady is raising is not a point of order. There will be a debate on the matter later tonight. If she were raising a matter of order with which I could deal, I would seek to deal with it, but I am not responsible for what Conservative Members may be circulating in a letter.

Ms. Primarolo : Further to my point of order, Mr. Speaker. The letter alleges that I am merely the agent of Bristol city council in this House. I seek your guidance, and ask you to rule, on whether that is an infringement of my parliamentary rights and duties.

Mr. Speaker : Order. It is not an infringement. I suggest that the hon. Lady go into the attack when we reach the matter at 7 o'clock.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May one inquire why the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) was not present in the Committee upstairs when the subject was discussed? She could have made her point there.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo), Mr. Speaker. I was the Labour Member who received that letter. I think it was sent to me inadvertently. It was probably meant for the hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks). I inadvertently opened it and inadvertently read it- - [Laughter.] --and then inadvertently passed it on--

Mr. Speaker : Order. Is the hon. Gentleman raising a point of order with me?

Mr. Banks : My point of order, Mr. Speaker, is that surely, at the very least, it is not courteous for hon. Members to circulate letters about another hon. Member in which a number of falsehoods appear. As a matter of courtesy, that cannot be considered good practice.

Mr. Speaker : I wish that I could be the recipient of some of these letters that circulate. I am afraid that I do not know what was in that letter, but I agree with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) that courtesy in our dealings with each other is most important.

Column 875

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker--

Mr. Speaker : Order. We must move on.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) : Further to the excellent point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that, when a Minister seeks to group questions for answer, he prefaces his answer with the words "with permission"? With whose permission does a Minister group questions?

Mr. Speaker : That too is courtesy. It is a matter for the Minister concerned. I note what has been said on this subject, and I shall reflect on it.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the 18th of this month I chaired a meeting of the all-party parliamentary Rugby League group, which was attended by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean). Officers of the group subsequently discovered that he had attended not as a member of the group but to take notes as a Government Whip on the business taking place. I believe this to be a gross intrusion into the works and activities of all-party groups, and the policing of those groups by the Government is totally unacceptable. It was an embarrassment both to the group officers and to our guests.

I would like you, Mr. Speaker, to give an assurance that you will speak to the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip to stop this unacceptable policing practice of all-party group activities.

Mr. Speaker : That is not a matter for me. It may have demonstrated an interest in rugby football.

Column 876

British Racing Commission

3.40 pm

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield) : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish a single national commission of control for the whole of the horse and dog racing industries, with overall responsibility for the bloodstock, thoroughbred breeding and betting industries, incorporating the control of the financial arrangements, rules and aims of current bodies, their other responsibilities and where applicable, the assets of all publicly funded or publicly supported organisations concerned or connected with these sports.

I find it necessary to refer early in my speech to the horse and dog racing sectors as industries, as I believe it is central to both the Bill as proposed and my argument for such a body that recognition is given to the scale of industrial, commercial and financial involvement within these sports, which currently employ well over 100,000 people, involve billions of pounds of public and private assets, handle a current annual turnover of well over £3 billion in betting income and, last but not least, have the daily interest, support and following of millions of punters and racegoers.

I personally cannot claim the credit for arguing the need for such a body, for it has been called for from within all parts of racing for many years. Most notably, the Rothschild commission recommended in the Seventies that immediate steps be taken to establish a British Racing Authority involving all groups with interests in racing. The need for such a body is even more urgent now than it was then, as the lack of action since these recommendations has worsened the situation considerably, with dismay, disenchantment and disillusion being the order of the day among all but a select few groups and individuals in the industries.

Such dissatisfaction has been widely seen in recent times. For example, a public row has taken place between the Horserace Betting Levy Board, a body set up in 1961 by this House following the legislation of off-course betting, and the bookmakers, who cannot agree on the amount of money horse racing should receive from them--or, even worse, for dog racing, whether it should get any levy at all. Next come the bookmakers' organisations themselves : first the National Association of Bookmakers, the body that represents primarily the small bookmaker both on and off course throughout Britain. It maintains that it is given only secondary consideration in matters of major concern to its predominantly small business members.

Then there is the Betting Office Licensees Association, set up by the big four bookmakers--Coral, William Hill, Ladbrokes and Mecca. This organisation is seen by many in the industry, rightly or wrongly, as at times receiving preferential consideration, against the long-term interests of the industry. In particular, a row continues over what many see as the unjust influence exerted by some members of this group in being allowed to continue to pocket levies from greyhound bets instead of ploughing them back into the sport itself. There is argument within the industry as to whether a sound financial deal was reached over the Satellite Information Service agreement for the live screening of races off course, in betting shops, and there is disillusionment among owners, who not only have to meet rising costs for the training and care of their horses and

Column 877

dogs but have to put up with extremely low prize money in most races. This is shown by the fact that, in dog racing, the average first prize is only £25, even though betting could amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds off course in betting shops, while in horse racing the vast majority of prize money is won by a tiny minority of owners, making it nearly impossible for them even to recoup their investment. Worse still, they have to pay for the privilege of providing their horse for racing, including entry, transport and veterinary costs.

The breeding industry is in dire need of support. Other nations, particularly Ireland, France, Germany and Italy, do much to help the small breeder. A British racing commission would greatly enhance the possibility of improvements in that area, particularly after 1992, with the single European market. Proof of that can be seen in the way in which Britain's main competitors in thoroughbred breeding in Europe receive distinct advantages over ours, especially on VAT rates. For example, VAT on horses in France is 5.5 per cent., in Germany, 7 per cent,. and in Italy, 9 per cent., while under annex 4F of the EEC directive, Ireland continues to enjoy complete exemption. I welcome the work of the Horserace Betting Levy Board and the Jockey Club to enhance prize moneys in racing, but the long- term security of the British breeding industry would be better served if it were part of a larger umbrella management, which would have greater strength and be able to deal more directly with all matters, including thoroughbred breeding.

Race courses are causing great unrest within all aspects of the industry. For instance, the ownership of some horse and dog racing tracks and stadiums by bookmaking firms has caused the raising of more than one eyebrow, particularly since arrangements have been made for improvements in Bookmakers Afternoon Greyhound Services and SIS. Just as importantly, there is a growing trepidation in racing over the power of the large bookmakers, particularly Ladbrokes, which now not only owns greyhound stadiums and racecourses in Britian, but holds major portfolios of ownership of race courses abroad. At home, the state of many of the current 59 horse racing courses have given rise to severe criticism about how the industry is allowed to be run. Many racing experts believe that it is a miracle that there has not yet been a major disaster at one of the 59 registered courses. Many course buildings are nothing more than outdated wooden mission huts, which on race days are severely overcrowded and could be a great danger to those using them.

A recent survey on seven race courses--Windsor, Wolverhampton, Salisbury, Newbury, Folkestone, Kempton Park and Ascot--gave harrowing details of the facilities available for those who work in the industry. With the exception of the Kempton and Ascot facilities, which were considered good, all were considered inadequate. For instance, Windsor was described as cold, crowded and badly designed. The women's hostel slept eight in bunks and the men's hostel was worse, sleeping 16 in bunk beds with only basic facilities. Toilets were visible from the outside, and could be clearly seen from the women's hostel.

At Wolverhampton, the women's hostel is an old detached building in a poor state of repair and decoration. It sleeps 11 with four bunk beds and three single beds with old mattresses. Bathroom facilities are appalling with only

Column 878

one hand basin, one toilet and one shower. It had no curtains, and windows were nailed down. The accommodation was damp, with poor heating. The men's hostel consisted of a large dormitory, adjacent to the canteen, sleeping 28. It had no windows, and old ex-Army style beds with dirty mattresses which showed signs of bed wetting. At Salisbury, the women's hostel has a public corridor, a dormitory with six single beds, one bathroom and no wardrobes or

clothes-hanging facilities. The men's hostel is as bad, with eight rooms containing two or three beds and no privacy from outside. A narrow passageway to the showers is situated next to the women's accommodation.

At Newbury, the women's hostel consists of one room on the first floor adjacent to the stable manager's office. It has six beds in curtained cubicles, with no cupboards or wardrobes, and there is a crude toilet downstairs. The male hostel is worse, with 44 beds, no cupboards and a bathroom with only two showers and four hand basins. Unless money is directly invested in those race courses, many will have to close. There is no evidence that the present racing management is responding to the needs.

The punters of the industry play little part in the decision-making process, yet they are the people who make possible the continuation of racing, whether in greyhound stadiums, race courses and betting shops or merely for viewing from the armchair at home. No real mechanism exists which guarantees their participation or, for that matter, their protection, which is surprising when one considers the fact that it is their money which enables the industry to flourish. That point was not lost on Anthony Fairbairn, chairman of the Racegoers Club, who recently said :

"It is the punter who pays the levy not the bookmaker In addition to betting tax of £300 million he is already paying about £75 million each year in levy to the racecourses he visits."

That point was not lost on Robert Fisher of the Punters Association, who has spoken against the sell-off of off-course tote betting shops to the combined forces of the Jockey Club and the Racecourse Association Ltd. He believes that it is

"an attempt to take over public assests for a peppercorn in order to benefit vested interest."

Although hon. Members may have different opinions from those that I have previously promoted, no one can dispute that the representation of punters' views can and should be part of the legitimate decision-making process of management.

Those who work in these industries should be represented in the management structure. Currently, many thousands of people work as jockeys, stable staff, transporter drivers, betting shop and totalisator staff, starting stall attendants, kennel staff, catering staff and others without whom the industries would not be able to operate, who have representation only on the advisory body--the Horseracing Advisory Council--whose work I greatly commend. Its structure, in part, mirrors a model on which could be built the type of body that I feel is necessary.

Mr. Speaker : Order. I warn the hon. Gentleman that he has now had 10 minutes. Will he please bring his remarks to a close?

Mr. Meale : I so move.

Question put and agreed to.

Column 879

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Alan Meale, Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie, Mr. Dennis Turner, Mr. Jimmy Hood, Mr. George J. Buckley, Mr. William McKelvey, Mr. Ian McCartney, Mr. John McAllion, Mr. Pat Wall, Mrs. Llin Golding, Mr. Max Madden and Mr. Harry Barnes.

British Racing Commission

Mr. Alan Meale accordingly presented a Bill to establish a single national commission of control for the whole of the horse and dog racing industries, with overall responsibility for the bloodstock, thoroughbred breeding and betting industries, incorporating the control of the financial arrangements, rules and aims of current bodies, their other responsibilities and where applicable, the assets of all publicly funded or publicly supported organisations concerned or connected with these sports. And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 17 February and to be printed. [Bill 47.]

Column 880

Opposition Day

[2nd Allotted Day] [First Part]

Food (Consumer Protection)

Mr. Speaker : I must announce to the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.52 pm

Dr. David Clark (South Shields) : I beg to move,

That this House condemns the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, for its failure properly to protect consumers.

I must begin by saying how sorry we are that the Minister has been taken ill and is unable to be with us today. I know that I speak for the whole House when I wish him a speedy and full recovery and look forward to seeing him back at the Dispatch Box. [ Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."]

The Labour party's decision to debate this vital issue was not taken lightly. It reflects our growing concern about the Government's failure to protect consumers--an opinion increasingly, and correctly, held by the general public. It is not an attempt to attack the farmers who produce our food, because there is an identity of interest between farmers and consumers. We believe that our debate will be helpful to farmers because public confidence in the wholesomeness, purity and safety of our food has been severely shaken.

It has been necessary for us to force this debate today because, by its failure to ensure the quality of food in Britain, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has undermined that public confidence. The Ministry has failed to recognise that, in an age of fast-changing food technology and increasing use of convenience food, the threat of food contamination is increasing. I remind the House that food poisoning has increased massively, from the 14,000 cases that were notified in 1982 to 40,000 cases in 1988. That is a threefold increase in seven years and, of course, the figures reported are only the tip of the iceberg.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : Will the hon. Gentleman consider seriously the point that there has been a demand to get rid of additives and preservatives, but that the younger generation of housewives have been accustomed to preservatives and are not used to the old-fashioned methods of preparing food that were used by their mothers and grandmothers, when preservatives were not available?

Dr. Clark : The hon. Lady has made her point clearly and has reminded us all of the need for food hygiene. Hygiene in the kitchen is only a small part of that, because we really need a hygiene programme for the whole nation, starting at the point of--I was going to say production-- but at the preproduction stage and going right through every chain of food production. Although I accept the hon. Lady's point, I do not agree with her specific argument.

The Ministry has increasingly listened to the producers' side. I thought that the Minister gave the game away last week when, in a written answer to myself, he acknowledged that in 1988 he had met the National

Column 881

Farmers Union of England and Wales on 37 occasions and the National Consumer Council only twice. That proves part of my case.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder) : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because I have with me a list of all Labour's Supply debates going back to 1979, and not a single one directly relates to food and the consumer. Is that omission by the Labour party the result of its satisfaction or its neglect of the issue?

Dr. Clark : I am somewhat surprised and perplexed by the Minister's intervention. Far from hitting the middle stump, I suspect that he bowled a wide. He knows the truth of our point that last year the Minister met the NFU 37 times but the National Consumer Council--the Government's own statutory body--only twice.

Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West) rose --

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) rose --

Dr. Clark : I am happy to give way, but if I do so, my speech, which I intend to be short, will be longer, and that may mean that some hon. Members who wish to speak will not be able to do so. I have already given way twice, and if I do so again, some hon. Members may not be able to speak.

Mr. Ryder rose --

Dr. Clark : I happily give way to the Minister.

Mr. Ryder : The hon. Gentleman has failed to answer my question and because he has failed to do so, I shall give him the answer. It was contained in an article in Tribune magazine on 11 November 1988, in which the hon. Gentleman stated that food is

"a huge field we have neglected".

Dr. Clark : As the debate unfolds, and I start developing our strategy, the Minister and the House will see that, far from us coming new to this subject, we have been planning and developing it for some considerable time. I shall explain that in a moment. Our case is not only that the Government have ignored the consumer, but, worse than that, when the Government appoint members to their own statutory advisory committees, such as the Food Advisory Committee, the premier committee, they go out of their way deliberately to exclude the consumer-- [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) may laugh, but I repeat that, of the 15 members on that premier food committee, only one represents the consumer. We maintain--

Mr. Ryder rose--

Dr. Clark : I am sorry, but we have certain rules, and the Minister will perhaps have two occasions later today to deploy his case. He had better deal with his points then.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : My hon. Friend knows that it will not go unnoticed outside the House that so far he has raised issues of safety, the consumer, food poisoning and health, but that all we have had on two occasions so far--there has been a third attempt--are petty party political points from the Minister.

Column 882

Dr. Clark : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. When he hears the case developed, he will see why the Minister is keen for us to obscure the debate, not on the basis of real facts, but of cheap party points.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Clark : I have tried to give way to both sides, and have done so fairly.

I agree with the National Consumer Council that this situation is not good enough. I agree with it when it says :

"It is essential that the consumer interest is effectively represented when national food policy is made."

I wish to turn from this structural weakness in the public's voice to the operational aspect of the Ministry. Perhaps I could turn back to 1986 and Chernobyl because, in the aftermath of Chernobyl, the Government had a specific and obvious duty to protect the public. However, their response has been found wanting by all who have examined it. From first learning of the high levels of radioactivity in sheep, it took the Government seven weeks to impose restrictions under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. While the Government dillied and dallied, sheep from areas of high radioactivity went to slaughter. According to the Government's own Meat and Livestock Commission, there were 50,000 such sheep in Cumbria alone. When we include Scotland and Wales, the total figure is likely to be about 100,000.

It is little wonder that the Select Committee on Agriculture concluded:

"It must therefore be highly probable"

that sheep above the safety level entered the food chain. That is the case on the figures produced by the Government's own statutory body, the Meat and Livestock Commission.

Let me turn from sheep to milk. Under pressure from the drug producers, such as Monsanto and Eli Lilly, the Government have been a soft touch. From secret documents we now know that the drug manufacturers singled out Britain as the key to the European market for bovine somatotropin, the milk -producing hormone, because they considered that there was likely to be the least political opposition here and because we have the most lax licensing system. The result is that the Government have allowed the drug companies to run trials with BST being injected into cows on 15 farms around the country. The location of those farms has been one of the most guarded secrets of the Ministry. I must pay credit and tribute at this stage to a fine piece of journalism in that most excellent newspaper, the Shields Gazette and Shipping Telegraph, which uncovered one of the farms in Cockle Park in Northumberland.

What is more, not only have those farms been kept secret, but the milk has been allowed to go directly into the milk supply. Many consumers are unwittingly drinking milk produced with BST on those experimental projects. The British public have been used as guinea pigs, and that simply is not good enough.

Let me turn now to more recent times, to the publicity surrounding salmonella and eggs. The Select Committee is currently trying to get to the truth of the issue, but we are not helped by the refusal of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) to give evidence to that Committee. The country has the right to know on what basis she, as the Minister of the Crown, made her infamous remark on 3 December 1988. Was there any substantiation

Column 883

in the files of the Department of Health, or has the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food done a deal to conceal the evidence? We have a right and a need to know the answer.

Mr. Ralph Howell (Norfolk, North) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Clark : I must get on. I am trying to be as quick as I can. The House, the medical profession and the general public know that there is a problem with salmonella, but the Government have obscured the extent of the problem.

Mr. Howell : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Next Section

  Home Page