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Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As a member of the Select Committee of Procedure, I must say to you that we are conducting an inquiry into standards of behaviour in this Chamber. One of the difficult points for the Committee to determine is whether standards of behaviour are responsible or irresponsible, disciplined or indisciplined. I ask you to take note of the fact that my hon. Friend has today been speaking for about 12 minutes, that there have been seven interventions by Conservative Members and that the interruptions have been disciplined by the Whips on the second Bench and led by the Minister from the Dispatch Box. I ask you to take note of this so that the Select Committee can record it in its proceedings.
Dr. Clark : Even last week, the Minister was forced to acknowledge in the House that the measures that he had just announced were not new. If there was nothing new, the question must now be why the powers now judged essential for the protection of public health were not used earlier. It remains a mystery to us why the Minister refuses to prosecute the 21 protein processing plants that were found to be contaminated with salmonella in 1987, or the 17 which were found to be similarly contaminated last year. Will he confirm that some of the 21 plants found to be contaminated in 1987 were subsequently found to be so again in 1988? Why does he refuse to name the two flocks of hens identified by the communicable disease centre as a source of repeated epidemics? Will he now take the opportunity to clear the air and tell the House the names of the offending farms? As the general public, we have the right to know the answer in both those cases. Hard on the heels of salmonella we have the listeria issue. It is clear that, following television and media disclosures, we have a major problem with listeria. Not only has the dedicated Professor Lacey of Leeds university produced evidence-- [Interruption.] I thought that Conservative Members might challenge that, so I have also consulted other sources. For example, environmental health officers in Bristol found listeria in three out of 31 cooked chicken products and in three out of five raw chicken products examined. Further evidence to support
Column 884the arguments of Professor Lacey comes more recently from Leeds, where the local authority found that seven out of 12 samples taken were contaminated with listeria, and from Peterborough, where six out of 17 fell into that category.
The Minister knows that that is the truth of the situation. Why does he ignore all the evidence that listeria can multiply in temperatures as low as 4 deg C? Why will the Government not heed the evidence and insist that adequate storage temperatures be maintained for the type of product most readily contaminated with listeria, and that the maximum shelf life be specified?
I could give many other examples, but time does not allow me to do so. It is clear that the Government are guilty of neglecting consumer safety ; indeed, they are often the direct cause of that neglect. As hon. Members know, our system of public health protection rests largely on inspections and checks, often by environmental health officers, yet, as a result of pressure on local authorities, there is a shortage of environmental health officers. That problem is exacerbated by the cutting of training places, resulting in approximately 430 vacancies last year. The number of food inspections is down by 15 per cent. Even the number of man years of people employed by the Ministry in visiting and advising abattoirs on hygiene and welfare standards has dropped from 53 in 1983 to 45 in 1987. That is the extent of the Government's commitment to these matters.
The Government have also just announced a massive 30 per cent. cut in the research and development of food and agriculture. How can they justify such a slashing of the R and D budget, which is vital to protect public health in Britain? A glaring example of the folly of these cuts is to be found in salmonella prevention techniques. At the food research institute in Bristol, funding has been withdrawn from a programme aimed at finding a method of preventing salmonella in poultry. A mere £300,000 is needed to complete the work. I ask the Minister even at this late hour to reinstate the three workers who have been given their redundancy notices. How can he find £19 million at the drop of a hat to reimburse the egg producers, but not find £300,000 for this vital research?
It is widely believed that two out of three institutes of food research will be closed, and it looks as if Bristol will be a casualty. Much valuable work is done there on food safety and quality, and the animal welfare aspects of meat production. Interestingly enough, one of the other projects under threat is a process for reducing contamination of meat by bacteria, including listeria. Can it really be in the consumers' interests that the Government should stop that work, particularly at a time when we are facing an epidemic of food poisoning and when there is growing public concern about the wholesomeness and quality of our food?
The eagerness of the present Administration to listen to industry is clearly illustrated by an examination of the regulations governing animal processing plants. The Labour Government proposed a public licensing system for animal food protein processing plants, which would have clearly maintained certain laid-down hygiene
Column 885standards. However, when the Conservative Government came to office, they changed the whole tenor of the regulations and allowed the industry
"to determine how best to produce a high quality product". The chairman of the United Kingdom Renderers Association, John Field, blew the gaff when he said :
"there was a change of heart when the Conservatives came into office. They were happy to drop the idea of a code and settle for random testing."
I do not need to expand on that.
The Government have repeatedly boasted of their policy to reduce public expenditure, to sweep away regulations and controls and to cut the number of public servants, whom they regard as unproductive and having no place in the Prime Minister's brave new Britain. The blatant irresponsibility of such an approach is seen most vividly in food safety, where its results have been literally deadly. Many of our citizens have died as a result of the Government's failure to protect our food adequately.
The Government have deliberately reversed the policies developed over centuries and abrogated their responsibility to protect the consumer. We call upon them today to reverse their deadly policy ; until they do that, they stand condemned of failing to protect the British people.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder) : I must at once apologise fothe absence of my right hon. Friend the Minister, who had been greatly looking forward to the debate. Unfortunately, as the House knows, he was taken ill last night while negotiating for Britain in Brussels. He is making a swift recovery and will be back at work here very soon. I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing him well, and I thank the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) for his kind opening remarks.
The shells, if that is what they were, fired by the hon. Member for South Shields missed their mark. Under my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) and my right hon. Friend the present Minister, the Ministry has changed dramatically in recent years. The general allegations made against it are not only way out of date but grossly misleading. To claim that Britain's entire food industry, from the field to the table, is in disarray, and that the entire population must go in fear of almost every item of food on the shelves is a travesty of the truth.
Britain's food industry is not a failure ; it is an outstanding success story. Its productivity, its export performance and its range of goods are evidence of that ; so is our retail sector, which is envied throughout the world. The industry employs more than 3 million people throughout the country. Does anyone really believe that if the industry and the Government had not paid attention to safety and quality, such achievements would have been possible?
The Labour party is out of touch with the views of consumers and taxpayers, and it admitted as much in the Tribune article of 11 November to which I have already referred. Opposition Members have shown a lack of understanding of, and interest in, the food chain. Since 1979 they have not selected a single Supply day subject directly related to food and consumers. That omission is due either to their satisfaction with our policies or to their neglect of the issue.
Column 886Consumers under this Government have much more variety of food on supermarket shelves, better value for money than in the 1970s and improved diet and standard of nutrition. The free market fostered by this Government is working in the interests of all consumers, who are getting a better deal from the food and agriculture industry than ever before. The far-reaching reforms of the common agricultural policy initiated in Brussels during the past few years, which are of direct benefit to consumers, are largely due to the pressure from Britain. For many years it has been a lone battle. It has been the firm voices of this Government and of the past two Conservative Ministers which have spoken up on behalf of consumers in Brussels. My right hon. Friend has raised the interests of consumers and the need to allow market forces to play a greater role in food and farming--
Mr. Ryder : I shall tell the hon. Gentleman precisely what we have done. Since the February Council of last year and the decisions that were taken largely as a result of British Government pressure, we have saved consumers hundreds of millions of pounds. I only wish that other European Ministers were as conscious of consumers as is my right hon. Friend--and as he will continue to be when he gets back.
Mr. Curry : Does my hon. Friend recall that, a long time ago when there was a Labour Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, there was a series of astronomical average farm price rises in Brussels, which was agreed by a Labour Minister? It was necessitated by high levels of inflation, above all in the United Kingdom, which meant that neither producers nor consumers benefited.
Mr. Ryder : My hon. Friend is correct. I shall leave references to the Labour party's record on prices and consumers in the 1970s to my able and talented Friend the Parliamentary Secretary who will wind up the debate later.
My right hon. Friend's first speech of the year in Oxford was a hard- hitting message to the food and farming industry, which emphasised the need for farmers to respond to the market place and satisfy the demand of consumers. That is a message that he has given all the time he has been in the Ministry.
He also reinforced his views on food safety in the same speech : "Certainly, as far as my own department is concerned, we have for a long time put considerable effort into ensuring that food is as safe as it can possibly be and I can assure you that this will continue to be a high priority area of the Ministry's work."
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : Will the Minister advise the House of the preparations which the Ministry has undertaken to recognise the implications of the European hygiene standards which will be implemented by 1992? They will include, for example, the full-time employment of veterinary surgeons within abattoirs. Will he look at the implications of that not just for veterinary medicine but for all other aspects of food hygiene?
Column 887Those people who suggest that my right hon. Friend is in the hands of farmers should have read recent press statements. A recent article in a farming magazine stated :
"What a pity that the people who have recently accused the Minister of Agriculture of being in the NFU's pocket weren't present at the Oxford Farming Conference. I have never heard a Minister spell out a tougher message than Mr. MacGregor did amid the Dreaming Spires." My right hon. Friend is in nobody's pocket--neither farmers, food manufacturers or retailers. He has struck a careful balance between the interests of consumers, the need to protect our countryside, the need of farmers and food businesses to make profit and the concerns of taxpayers over how their money is spent. The Government believe that consumers and taxpayers are the major beneficiaries of the reform of the CAP instigated by this Government.
Action taken by the Government in Brussels has reduced the surpluses--the mountains are vanishing because of decisions taken at our instigation.
Our action has reduced the burden on taxpayers--the cost of the CAP is now under control. The reform of the CAP has kept the rises in food prices below the rate of inflation--in contrast to the Labour party when it was in power. It has brought greater realism to the CAP, allowing a greater role for market forces and this provided a stable basis on which the food and agriculture industry can prosper in the 1990s.
Consumers, thanks to the success of this Government's economic policies, have an improving standard of living and can buy food of better quality than ever before. The prosperity which this Government have brought to the United Kingdom economy is, more than anything, responsible for the improved living standards of the vast majority of the population. That has been achieved without weakening the surveillance of the food industry. Indeed, the food law standards, to which I shall be referring later, are increasing and consumers are better protected than ever before.
Consumers have a much wider choice on the supermarket shelves than ever before. In response to the market policies of this Government, the food industry has shown great ingenuity as it satisfies consumer demand. New products and foods are now available. [Interruption.] Consumers are better off, with rising real incomes and lower inflation. Unlike the 1970s, when Labour was in office and prices were out of control, consumers are benefiting from low food price inflation and, as their real incomes rise, they are able to spend a lower proportion of their incomes on basic foods and more on other things. Economic prosperity has given them the freedom to choose. From a sedentary position, hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench have been asking about food surveillance, and safety, and I shall deal with it now.
Consumers are better protected than ever before by Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food scientists. We employ more food scientists now than were employed
Column 888under the Labour Government. The hon. Member for South Shields appeared to imply that the number of food scientists that we are employing is lower.
Mr. Ryder : If the hon. Gentleman did not imply that, I shall, of course, withdraw it. However, we employ more food scientists now than did the Labour Government. They are better equipped than they have ever been, with more sophisticated techniques. They are making sure that the food we eat is as safe as possible, and they are admired and respected throughout the world.
Consumers, as well as producers, have benefited from the emphasis which we have placed on animal health. Major efforts have been put into protecting animal health in the United Kingdom. The Ministry has raised the health status of livestock, so that overseas markets, which are closed to other countries, are open to our producers. This Government have always believed in the right of consumers to good-quality, nourishing food at affordable prices. Food law's essential purpose is to achieve consumer protection in areas of fraud, misleading labelling and food safety.
The Food Acts were consolidated by this Conservative Government in 1984 and followed major Conservative Food Acts of 1938 and 1955. They made it an offence to render any food for sale injurious to health or to sell--or offer for sale--food unfit for human consumption. The Government announced in October 1987--13 to 14 months ago--but only after consulting consumer organisations, that we would be further updating food legislation. Preparations for the Bill are well advanced. I have met the Consumers Association and the National Consumer Council, and our officials meet consumer organisations regularly or whenever they are asked to do so. Our door is always open to the Consumers Association and the National Consumer Council. There are countless examples when we have responded positively to consumer representations. We insisted on rejecting the use of clouding agents in soft drinks. We pressed ahead with our nutrition labelling, and we are introducing alcohol strength labelling in the face of industry opposition.
Among issues being discussed with consumers are provisions for the proper evaluation and control of technological developments with food and food packaging materials which could pose hazards for consumers. The Food Bill that we are preparing to bring before Parliament will be the biggest since 1938, and we began the preparation of that Bill in October 1987.
Those hon. Members sitting on the Opposition Front Bench have been rightly muttering that we must devote ourselves during the debate not only to food safety but to food surveillance. It is food surveillance to which I now turn.
There are 10 working parties covering all aspects of food safety that fall within our area of responsibility. Working parties cover additives, nutrients and chemical contaminants in the diet. Their work, carried out by scientists and academics of the highest calibre, is objective and up-to- date. Evidence is assessed on contaminants, residues and naturally occurring toxins. The evidence is published with expert comment on each of the subjects
Column 889dealt with by the working parties. Recent reports include those on colours in food, nitrates and plasticisers and more are in the pipeline.
Mr. Ryder : For the benefit of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home-Robertson), in order to overcome any doubts I have some of the reports with me. Here are some of them. The survey of mycotoxins in the United Kingdom--that report was published and the Government acted upon it ; a survey of lead in food--we published it and the Government acted on it ; the surveillance of food contamination in the United Kingdom--the report was published and the Government acted on it.
There is full public consultation before Ministers make new regulations. Reports of the Government's advisory committees are, as the hon. Member for South Shields knows, published and comments invited on them from consumer bodies. At the core of our work for consumers is the Food Advisory Committee to which the hon. Member for South Shields alluded. That is a vital body, respected all over Europe, which includes eminent scientists and academics, as well as consumer representatives.
Mr. Ryder : The hon. Gentleman also said that in his speech, but let me put him right. I have a list of the people who sit on that committee and I shall read out the names of the five people who are either representatives of consumers or consumer enforcement bodies. They are Dr. Margaret Ashwell, Mr. Tony Harrison, Mr. Roger Manley, Miss Patricia Mann and Mrs. Anne Stamper. They are all
representatives of consumer bodies or consumer enforcement authorities and there are five of them, not one.
Dr. David Clark : Would the Minister also like to advise the House by which other bodies those people are paid? I understand that Dr. Margaret Ashwell is now employed by an industry-funded body. All the other people apart from one, have links with the food industry.
Mr. Ryder : I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enabling me to point out precisely where those Committee members work. Dr. Margaret Ashwell is an independent consultant on food nutrition, Mr. Tony Harrison is chief scientific adviser, public analyst and official agricultural analyst to Avon county council, Mr. Roger Manley is director of trading standards for Cheshire county council, Miss Patrica Mann is head of external affairs for J. Walter Thompson and Mrs. Anne Stamper--in deference to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) I will not describe her as a "chairman"--is the chair of education for the National Federation of Women's Institutes and a lecturer in biology at Lewes technical college. No one can tell me that those five people, men and women of the highest calibre, do not represent the interests of the consumer on the food advisory committee.
I will take this opportunity to explain some of the work undertaken by the committee on behalf of consumers. Its
Column 890advice on additives is based on the following criteria--that they are of demonstrable need, are not prejudicial to health, do not affect nutritive value, are used only minimally and are properly labelled. Therefore I yield to no one, least of all the hon. Member for South Shields, in my belief that the advisory committee, chaired by the vice-chancellor of Reading university, protects consumers as its number one priority.
I am glad to report that the United Kingdom concept of need, as outlined and pursued by the food advisory committee, has been adopted by the European Community Commission and now forms part of EC as well as our legislation. All the reports of the Government's advisory committees, including the food advisory committee, are published. I know that pesticides are a matter of concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. My Department is one of six Government Departments that must approve any new pesticides before they can be sold. Ministers are advised by the independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides before any approval, review or revocation of a pesticidal substance. The approval system is backed up by an intensive system of monitoring residues by the working party on pesticide residues at a cost of nearly £1 million per annum to the taxpayer.
At the other end of the food chain, food labelling law is designed to assist consumers to make an informed choice at the time of purchase. Food labels must detail the name or description of the food, an ingredients list, date of minimum durability--
The label must also detail the name and address of the responsible packer or seller. In addition, and where appropriate, details of storage instruction, instructions for use and place of origin must be given. Food labelling, which is a matter of great concern to consumers, is kept under regular review by my Department. We have issued a booklet entitled "Look at the Label". Half a million copies have been distributed and another edition will be published shortly. Sticking closely to the question of consumer information, which is part of the motion before the House today, it is generally recognised that food hygiene is of paramount importance in reducing food poisoning risks. The Government are about to launch a food hygiene education programme aimed at consumers. Of course, additives and processing techniques should not be used to conceal inadequate hygiene, and food manufacturers must comply with good manufacturing practices ; otherwise they face the sanction of the law.
Mr. Ryder : They can be sanctioned under the Food Act 1984. It is nearly 10 years since we took office and, during that time, we have initiated at least 20 specific debates on the Floor of the House and in Committee that have directly affected food and the consumer. I am not counting among that number the regular agriculture, fisheries and food
Column 891debates. The subjects of those 20 debates have ranged from misleading labelling to pesticide residues. How does our figure of 20 debates compare with Opposition-instigated debates about food and consumers? I have already pointed out that, since 1979, no Supply day has been given up by the Opposition to discuss those matters. What audacity the Opposition have to appropriate consumerism as their own creed.
There can only be two reasons for the Opposition's neglect of food and consumers--either their satisfaction with our policies of the last decade or their lack of interest in the subject. [Interruption.] Opposition spokesmen may protest, but is it contentment or lack of interest? I am a fair-minded fellow and I offer them the benefit of the doubt. I ascribe the Opposition's silence to contentment and their protests to street theatre.
The truth is that while the Labour party dabbles with the rhetoric of opposition, the Government grapple with the problems, secure the solutions and, as I have explained, act on them.
Mr. Gordon Oakes (Halton) : First, I join my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and the Parliamentary Secretary in wishing a speedy recovery to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He is suffering from a nasty illness and we wish him well and a speedy return to the House. Having listened to a speech of utter complacency from the Parliamentary Secretary, the sooner the Minister comes back to the House the better.
I shall first deal with the Parliamentary Secretary's allegation that the Opposition have taken too little interest in food. I agree with him. I do not believe that we have taken nearly enough interest in this matter, but I remind him that we are not the Government. He said that during the past 10 years we have not instigated any Supply day debate on food. That may be true, but we have instigated one today because there is a great deal of public concern--it has increased since Christmas--about food handling. Any Opposition will use their Supply days to bring public concern to the attention of the House. That is why my hon. Friend tabled today's motion. I am afraid, however, that public concern will not be assuaged by the complacent speech by the Parliamentary Secretary.
If proof were needed that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is so producer-oriented that it cannot adequately look after consumers, surely the Christmas pantomime about eggs put the matter beyond doubt. Let us reflect on what happened at Christmas and what the Ministry did only a few weeks ago. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) did her job. I did not give her notice that I would refer to her, but I shall say nothing disparaging about her. In fact, I thought that she would be present and I am astonished that she is not in her place during a debate dealing directly with the matters that led to her resignation as a Minister.
As a Minister for health the hon. Lady warned the public about a potential health hazard. That warning had already been given to hospitals. As a result of what the hon. Lady said, there was sheer panic in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Government threw £19 million at egg producers as compensation for loss of business. They did not link that money with research into
Column 892salmonella, improving premises or making the flocks free of salmonella ; they simply compensated the industry for loss of orders.
The Ministry is producer-oriented. It is unconcerned with consumers and quite desperately concerned not to offend Government supporters in the egg- producing industry. The only person to emerge with any credit was the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South, who was mocked by the media and jeered at and scorned by Conservative Members--and, I am ashamed to say, by some Opposition Members--for doing her job. It is a pity that she was forced to resign for doing the very job that the Government appointed her to do.
The Minister keeps promising us that there will be a massive Food Act. The last basic Food Act was in 1955. The regulations under which most inspections take place were made in 1970. I am an honorary vice-president of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers. That institution has been pressing the Government for food regulations and for a food Act for more than five years. When the Minister was talking about the various institutions and consumer organisations with which his Department had been in contact, I noticed that he did not mention the front line--the environmental health officers who have to implement the legislation. When the Minister talked about how much research had been done and how many papers had been produced, it was as if, in the face of a crime wave, the Home Secretary were saying how many academics were studying criminology. We do not need academics, we need people in the front line forcing a modern Act and modern regulations.
Let us look back to 1970 when the regulations came into force. Microwave ovens were unknown, except possibly by NASA in America. In 1970 the whole principle of microwave ovens was unknown. Now they are commonplace. Microwave ovens can be dangerous because sometimes they merely reheat food and do not kill germs within that food. In 1970 there was not such an enormous number of freezer shops. Now, in every high street there are freezer shops and there are freezer stores in every supermarket. That was not so in 1970 when the regulations were made.
There has also been a massive increase in the number of take-away food outlets since 1970. In 1970, who would have dreamt of going to Marks and Spencer for a pack of sandwiches or a salad? I say nothing about the standards of Marks and Spencer which are probably the highest in the world, but the other side of the coin is that the local garage on the street corner may sell sandwiches which are being handled by someone with no knowledge whatsoever of food and more than likely the sandwiches have been in the window in the broiling sun before being sold and consumed.
The people who have to deal with those circumstances and police those regulations are the environmental health officers, so we should consider their numbers and recruitment. There is an acute shortage of environmental health officers. Out of nearly 6,000 officers in the United Kingdom there is a shortage of some 430. That is a 4.5 per cent. shortage throughout the country, and here in London--where we read only last week that the rat population makes it almost the rat capital of the world--there is a shortage of nearly 9 per cent. The Government have done nothing to alleviate that problem. They have been a hindrance squeezing local authorities until the pips squeak so that they have difficulty
Column 893in paying for more public health inspectors and environmental health inspectors who are desperately needed at present. They have even closed the course at Aston and Bristol polytechnics, thereby reducing the number of recruits by 60 per year. In that profession, there is 100 per cent. certainty of employment once students have completed and passed the course, but the Government have reduced the number of students on those courses.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields said that the number of cases of food poisoning now stands at some 40,000. In 1982 the figure was about 14,000 or 15,000. That increase is in direct proportion to the shortage of public health inspectors. If one looks at the graph the parallel is clear.
Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge) : Is the right hon. Gentleman talking about the number of reported cases of food poisoning or the number of actual cases? Does he agree that, because of greater public awareness of the problems of food poisoning, perhaps more cases have been reported than previously?
Mr. Oakes : I do not think that is so. I am talking about the number of reported cases, but I do not think that it is a question of people not reporting cases. I am not certain, but I think that when someone goes to a doctor for treatment for food poisoning, the doctor is under a duty to report that case to the public health inspectors. However, I am quite certain that the incidence of food poisoning in this country has increased, and the public is well aware of that increase.
There is an acute need to do something about that, not to set up more academic bodies to consider various matters, but to produce legislation that is modern and up-to-date and that takes into account modern technology and the state of the market at present, and as it is likely to be in future. The Minister should direct his attention to that instead of paying £19 million to compensate egg producers because of a remark by one of his ministerial colleagues. In the light of that, is the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the correct Department to administer food? It has held that responsibility for a long time, but I repeat that it is a producer-oriented Department. The institution to which I referred wants a separate Ministry for Food. I do not agree with that ; I do not think that the subject merits a separate Ministry with all the panoply of a Department of State.
Should the responsibility for food go to the Department of Health? At first sight there is a case for that, especially as the Department of Health is no longer linked to the Department of Social Security. Diet and food, and food standards, involve health and preventive health, so it is important that the Department of Health looks after food rather than the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Should the responsibility go to the Department of the Environment which looks after local authorities who employ the trading standards officers and the environmental health inspectors?
I am not sure about the Department of the Environment, because of its deplorable record on water authorities in the past few months. It also tends to be
Column 894producer-oriented rather than consumer- oriented. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller) laughs, but the record of the Department of the Environment is deplorable, for example, in what it is allowing water authorities to do at present. It will get worse when the water industry is privatised.
Mr. Marland : Does the hon. Gentleman think that we should also have a separate Department for looking after transport users, other than the Department of Transport? Possibly he could also outline to us what he would do with the users of energy. Would he have them looked after by the Department of Energy or would he like to have another Department for users of energy as well, to carry his theory to its logical conclusion?
Mr. Oakes : So often when one gives way one does so just when one is about to answer the question put by the hon. Member to whom one gives way. I do not think that the Department of the Environment would be suitable. To give MAFF its due, it is not the only producer-oriented Department--and this is the hon. Gentleman's point. I was a Minister at the Department of Energy which was dominated by three boards--gas, coal and electricity--not by consumers. The civil servants all knew people in the industry, there was a sort of incestuous relationship going on all the time and the consumer was forgotten. That does happen with Departments of State.
No, my solution is that we try a Department of Consumer Affairs again. We need to have it as a complete and separate Department of State. In 1974 the Labour Government made a very bungled and half-hearted attempt to set one up, but it failed because it had no powers. Other Departments were very reluctant to hand over their powers to it, even though they did not want to do the work themselves. What I have in mind is a Department with a Cabinet Minister at the head, with a permanent secretary and fully staffed by civil servants who have the power to deal with all the different Ministries. It should have the responsibility for enforcing food regulations ; it should deal with transport complaints ; it should deal with energy consumers and telephone bills ; and all the statutory bodies would be answerable to it.
The Government should look closely at this idea of a separate Department of consumer affairs. I can think of many of my hon. Friends who would make excellent Cabinet Ministers in charge of such a Department, but on the Government Benches I know of no one with the enthusiasm and determination to do such a job--except possibly the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South.