Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge) : I associate myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) concerning my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We hope that he will soon be back with us to debate these matters.
I wish first to declare an interest. I am an adviser to two sections of the food industry and worked in that industry for more than 20 years--my interests are declared in the Register of Members' Interests--and I hope that I shall be able to deploy some of my experience of the food industry to effect this afternoon. I would like to record my very high opinion of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food over a long period of time for the way in which it has
Column 895protected consumers. I have always regarded MAFF, as it is known to everyone in the industry, as one of the best Departments of State. It is well run and well staffed, and its staff know what they are doing on agricultural, food and fisheries policy.
I therefore completely reject the terms of the Opposition motion. I simply do not believe that there is any good evidence--nor has any been adduced this afternoon--to condemn MAFF, in the terms of the motion, for its failure to protect the consumer. I will demonstrate to the House why I believe this to be so.
MAFF is responsible for food and safety surveillance. The provisions of the various Food Acts require that all food should be safe and that consumers should not be misled. For example, the Acts' general provisions make it an offence either to use any substance during the preparation of food so as to render it injurious to health or to sell food which is not of the nature, substance or quality demanded by the consumer. Food and Health Ministers are jointly responsible for deciding what substances are allowed in the nation's food and rely on the independent advice of distinguished experts, notably those who serve on the Food Advisory Committee and on the Committee on the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, known affectionately as "COT".
All these committees are independent of Government, and I am very sorry that the right hon. Member for Halton attempted this afternoon to insinuate that in some way the membership of these committees was not adequate to protect the consumers, or, alternatively, that those people who serve on the committees who represent the consumers had some outside interest which would prevent them from exercising their independence. I know full well, as does the whole food industry, that that simply is not true. The committees are of the highest possible standard. Their members are independent. Their decisions are recognised throughout the industry as capable of being fully respected, and such decisions have always been acted on promptly. So let us get out of the way once and for all any suggestion that the committees are not independent or that their members are somehow biased.
Dr. David Clark : Could I just quote "Food Policy and the Consumer", produced by the National Consumer Council? On page 19 it says : "The Food Advisory Committee has itself no independent powers. It can only respond to specific instructions from Ministers". Those are the words of the Government's own National Consumer Council.
Mr. Shersby : What it does not say is that the advice given by the various committees is not independent. It is independent, and it is the duty of my right hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues to refer to the Food Advisory Committee matters of importance that affect the food industry, the consumer and the whole food chain.
Sir Richard Body (Holland with Boston) : The first name on the list of members is that of Dr. Albury. I well remember being asked about a year ago to be a presenter on a television documentary programme, and she was one of those that I had to interview. Before I did so, I discovered that she had telephoned the Ministry of Agriculture to find out what she ought to say. Then, after
Column 896asking her a few questions, I discovered that she earned her living by contracting for food manufacturers. For those two reasons, she did not seem very independent.
Mr. Shersby : My hon. Friend makes that point ; doubtless my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will reply to it later. It is quite right and proper for members of a committee of that kind to know the Ministry's view as well as their own. But there has been an attempt, not by the right hon. Member for Halton but by those outside the House who have written books from time to time, to imply that, because the proceedings of those committees are confidential, they are in some way biased. I hope that the House will accept today that that is not the case.
I would like to quote briefly a couple of examples of consumer protection. One of the problems concerning MAFF and consumers is that of bovine spongiform encephalopathy : MAFF has acted promptly to deal with this new cattle disease. In April last year the Government set up an expert working party to examine all aspects of the disease, including its implications for human health and, although the working party found no evidence of risks to human beings, it recommended that affected cattle and their milk be destroyed--another example of quick action taken by MAFF.
A major research programme has examined practical ways of reducing pesticide input into the environment, something of vital concern to consumers. Another matter which I know about from personal experience is the question of wrapping and packaging materials. Here again, as a result of a report of a working party on vinyl chloride, the level of vinyl chloride monomer transferred to food from PVC packaging materials has decreased substantially. That is very important. I can also tell the House that, following consultation with MAFF, manufacturers have reformulated their products to reduce the levels of placticiser used in PVC and so keep the potential intake to a minimum. That is an important matter, which has been raised by consumer organisations and reported in the press and on radio and television. We see that MAFF is taking action.
The Minister referred to the review of the Food Act 1984. I know from personal experience that that review has been in preparation for several years and has required the most enormous amount of work by his Department and considerable consultation with consumers and the food industry.
We look forward to 1992 and what will happen over food safety. Britain's food standards are generally higher than those in any other European Community country. As a result, we are able to export large quantities of food, not only to other European countries but throughout the world.
An important matter in this context is food labelling and additives. MAFF has been at the forefront of the drive to ensure that food is labelled properly and that accurate information is provided to the consumer. As long ago as 1980, it issued about a million copies of a free booklet called "Look at the Label" which was designed to encourage consumers to look at labels to find out about the contents of what they were buying. All those changes give the lie to the suggestion that MAFF keeps the consumer in ignorance and protects the producer from change.
The United Kingdom has a restrictive view on the use of food additives. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister
Column 897and his colleagues approve an additive only if they are satisfied that it is necessary and safe. Some additives are necessary, and many of them are safe. The point made by the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) was important. Food poisoning has been on the increase--at least, the number of reported cases of food poisoning--and that is a matter of great concern to consumers, the Ministry and the food industry.
In this country, as in any other civilised country, we must try to achieve a balance between the use of additives and preservatives, and having foods with no additives or preservatives. We all know that, if one tries to produce jam without its major constituent, preservative, it will go mouldy. Bread and many other products can easily go mouldy. The object of using additives and preservatives is to prevent that happening and to ensure that the consumer enjoys the advantage of having safe food at his or her disposal.
This afternoon we have discussed food intolerance in relation to additives. There is an excellent example of research, funded by the Ministry, into the study of the prevalence of food intolerance to food additives. MAFF is conducting that work, assisted by the initiative of the Food and Drink Federation, which takes a keen interest in that matter.
This afternoon's debate is a result of public concern over food safety. That concern has arisen because of the problem of salmonella and, more recently in the past few days, the problem of listeriosis monocytogenes.
There has been much debate in the House about salmonella and the infestation of chicken flocks and eggs, which I shall not expand on this afternoon. However, I shall speak about listeria monocytogenes. It is not new, but has been with us for more than 20 years. It is important to recognise that, since 1986, only four cases of listeria that is attributable to food consumption have been reported. That figure comes from a report from the public health laboratory. There are other ways in which listeria can infect a human body, but I am talking about those cases which are specifically attributable to food consumption. It is important to bear than in mind.
Mr. Shersby : I am not sure whether that is the reason. I am sure that the public health laboratory monitors those cases of food infection extremely carefully. Notification may assist in dealing with other cases. The other day, I heard an obstetrician talking about this problem and about the number of cases that he had encountered. It may be that notification will be a valuable way of drawing attention to that aspect of the problem.
As a result of the recent outbreaks of salmonella and listeria, there has been some pressure for the transfer of the responsibility for food safety to the Department of Health. It is argued that MAFF cannot protect the consumer while at the same time acting as the sponsoring Ministry for the food industry and farmers. Is that true? MAFF argues that transferring the responsibility would break the chain of responsibility for the production and safety of food from the farm to the consumer. Some consumer organisations and health pressure groups argue that, as the Department
Column 898of Health is responsible for the provision of health care, it should be responsible for food safety. There is, perhaps, some right on both sides.
While MAFF is responsible for everything from the short tail docking of sheep to changes in controls on pesticides, it is not responsible for regulations governing the manufacture and storage of cook-chill foods. I draw the Minister's attention to a strange sequence of events. Last week, I tabled three parliamentary questions to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. They dealt with regulations about good practice in the manufacture of cook-chill foods, regulations governing the temperature at which such foods are stored, with any plans that he might have to ensure that instructions about refrigeration and storage on containers of cook- chill products were sufficiently clear.
To my intense surprise, all three questions were transferred to the Department of Health. Those were priority written questions because I wanted the answers for this afternoon's debate. However, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health said that he would reply as soon as possible. That can only beg the question as to whether his Ministry has responsibility for food safety standards in food manufacture. I say that MAFF has that responsibility because it is responsible for the Food Act and is the food manufacturing industry's sponsoring Ministry.
According to the current list of ministerial responsibilities which was issued by the Cabinet Office last September, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder) is responsible for food policy, food standards and food science, yet important questions concerning food standards are transferred by his Department--by his parliamentary branch--to the Secretary of State for Health. Why? I hope that when he winds up tonight, my hon. Friend will tell us.
It is important that the post of the Minister responsible for food is clearly defined and carries sufficient weight and seniority within the Ministry. Food is one of three major areas of responsibility within MAFF. With due respect to the three Parliamentary Secretaries--my noble Friend the Baroness Trumpington and my hon. Friends the Members for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson) and for Mid-Norfolk--their responsibilities cover a wide range of topics. Let us take food safety as an example. My noble Friend is responsible for cereals, sugars, oils, fats, potatoes, processed fruits and vegetables, tropical foods, horticulture, plant health, plant varieties, seeds and pesticides, all of which have an important bearing on food safety. My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley deals with meat, milk and poultry products, and animal health and welfare. His responsibilities also include eggs, chickens and milk, to which is linked cheese made from pasteurised or non-pasteurised milk. Of course, that all relates to the current concern about, for example, listeria.
Then we have the third Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk, who deals with food policy, food standards and, most important, food science. But my hon. Friend also has to deal with alcoholic drinks and the countryside. In effect we have three Ministers of Food ; all of them do a first-class job and are much admired for it. But we have no Minister of State in MAFF. Why? In the light of the events of recent weeks, should there not be one senior Minister in overall charge of food policy, food standards and food science? We cannot reasonably expect my right hon. Friend the
Column 899Minister of Agriculture who has overall responsibility for the Department, including agricultural support policy, the European Community, price fixing and all the rest of it, to have the necessary hands-on, day-to-day responsibility for dealing with all these other important but less dramatic matters.
In comparison with the structure of MAFF, in the Department of Health there is a Minister of State who is designated Minister of State for Health, and who is responsible for preventive health care, including drugs, alcohol abuse, and so on. Neither the Secretary of State for Health nor the Minister of State for Health is responsible for food policy or food manufacturing standards. Yet it is to them that my questions on these matters have been referred.
One of the best answers to the problems that we face today is to improve our presentation and to have a senior Minister of State for food, responsible for food policy, food standards and food science. Such a Minister might have the benefit of an agency which could look after those interests and advise him. When my hon. Friend next talks to his right hon. Friend about these matters, he should ask him to consider the way in which the responsibilities are divided and to consider whether a Parliamentary Secretary be promoted.
Perhaps I may remind my hon. Friend of the words of one of his distinguished predecessors, Lord Woolton. When Lord Woolton spoke, everyone knew that the Minister of Food had spoken. His word went throughout the length and breadth of the land. All of us appreciated what he had to say ; he was a truly great man. From the way my hon. Friend the Member for Mid- Norfolk handled the debate this afternoon, there is a fair chance that he may follow in Lord Woolton's footsteps.
Let us improve our presentation so that the understandable concern of consumers can be assuaged. We should have a Minister of Food who is responsible for food safety and who will be able to ensure, as the Minister of Agriculture has done for many years, that the standards of food production are as high as possible.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye) : May I first associate my colleagues in the Social and Liberal Democrats with the good wishes expressed to the right hon. Gentleman, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? We share the hope expressed in the House that his current indisposition will soon be behind him and that he is well on the way to full recovery so that he may return to the Dispatch Box to discuss agriculture matters with us.
The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) referred to the structure of food policing policy, if I may call it that. Although I agree with the sentiments behind the Labour decision to call for the debate today, I cannot fully endorse, and certainly will not support in the Lobby, the blanket condemnation in the Opposition motion. At the same time, the Minister's account of the state of the art was rather too complacent and self-congratulatory. If someone were not aware of the background over the past few months, his epitaph on the Minister's speech might be, "Problem? What problem?" We had a self-assured performance, which one would expect from the Minister,
Column 900but it was just a little complacent on the details of policy and its implementation. On that basis I will not support the Government's amendment.
To go back to first principles, running through the debate and some of the criticisms which the Labour and Conservative parties exchanged on the matter is a false dichotomy. At times we overlook the fact that, while farmers are producers, they have a strong vested interest in the highest standards which consumers want because they themselves are consumers. If farmers cannot contribute to the United Kingdom food chain in a way which reassures and gives the public the strongest confidence in the products which they are invited to purchase, the farmers will suffer in immediate financial terms and also because their households and families will be open to exactly the same dangers which we wish to see averted for consumers in general. There is a false dichotomy in suggesting that the two sectors are irreconcilable and cannot recognise shared interests.
Mr. Ron Davies : May I assure the hon. Gentleman that that was precisely the point that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) made at the beginning of his speech? He made it clear that there was a community of interest between food producers and consumers.
Equally, if we are in favour, as I think both Government and Opposition are, of effective consumerism, that must surely mean the public having as much information as possible to make rational, sensible and well-informed choices. That is why Britain, although lagging behind North America in consumerism, as in so many other things, is moving radically in the same way in putting much greater emphasis on labelling, on the detailing of additives used food and so on. That is sensible. It is hardly surprising and it is a trend which is broadly welcomed.
The last principle, which again must never be overlooked, is that since the second world war it has been the role of the Minister of Agriculture and a fundamentally important objective for any Government to secure a position in United Kingdom agriculture which does not result in food shortages for the consumer. That policy has been pursued successfully for over 40 years. Even though we have had a legitimate concern about the problems of the past few months, we should never lose sight of the public disturbance which would result if we ever had to go back to the food shortages or the rationing of 40 years ago. Those are the shared principles upon which any policy should be based.
In regard to surpluses, one need not look to many sectors, if any, of United Kingdom domestic production for any surpluses which are accumulating within the European Community. We took steps to reduce our share of the over-production of milk within the Community. The Minister referred to the speech by his right hon. Friend in Oxford recently. I worry slightly about us becoming more Thatcherite, as is suggested in some quarters, in our attitude to agriculture. When the Minister of Agriculture was speaking in Oxford, he told farmers that they should no longer see themselves as food producers but, to quote his phrase, as "landscape
Column 901entrepreneurs". His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales would probably endorse that, but I do not believe that it is quite what the Minister had in mind. Landscape entrepreneurial activity is all very well, but another farmer who was at that gathering, Mr. Oliver Walston, from East Anglia--he will not be unknown to the Ministry--has commented that free trade-- [Interruption.] I no longer answer for the Social Democrats, but for the Social and Liberal Democrats. I am answerable for the official but not the provisional wing. If I may quote the poor man, who should not be dragged into that family concern, he told the conference that free trade would leave "not a single Scottish crofter, the Lake District a wilderness, and the hillsides of Wales without a sheep or cow."
I hope therefore that the Ministry, and the Government in general will bear in mind those very important points when considering the broad policy towards the changing nature of agriculture in Britain. As the hon. Member for Uxbridge has suggested, there is something of an in-built institutional conflict in MAFF, between the support of agricultural interests, of farmers and food, and its policing role to ensure public safety in food standards.
Equally, if one considers the Department of Health, I would have been interested to hear a Health Minister respond to the debate because it would have shown the degree of consistency or co-ordination within the Government. Although the Department of Health must act where there is any potential threat to the consumer, I understand that with regard to food production, the Department of Health must first persuade MAFF of any potential or actual threat. There is therefore a case in the longer term for looking at the anomalies that that position creates, although in the short term I want to speak in support of MAFF. Indeed, if the Government are reviewing the position, as Whitehall rumours suggest they are, as reported in the press, there might be considerable merit in moving towards an American-style Food and Drugs Administration. In other words, there would be a Government-funded, yet independent, watchdog organisation. That is not a million miles removed from what the hon. Member for Uxbridge was alluding to earlier.
In the shorter term, with difficulties with salmonella and listeria, which have dominated the headlines, and the Select Committee on Agriculture's inquiry into these events, the clear message coming through is that the £32 million cutback in MAFF over five years and the effect of that on its research and development, coupled with the scientific importance of that research and development, cannot be seen in isolation from the difficulties that have been encountered recently. The hon. Gentleman correctly detailed some of the scientific reductions which have taken place, and are planned in the future. Surely they can only reduce the ability of the Department to carry out the very statutory obligations that it is supposed to uphold.
We await with interest the Department's proposed Food Bill, which is due in the next year or so. It is also worth looking at the provisions of the Food and Drugs Act 1955 and the Food and Drugs (Milk) Act 1970, to which the Minister referred in his speech. Let us hope that the Bill being drawn up in the Department will seek to deal with some of the omissions. For example, many foods are excluded from any refrigeration requirements, including butter and cheese, uncooked bacon and ham, cakes and
Column 902pastries. The temperature levels for refrigerating foods are too high. While the Government recommend that at home people should keep pre-cooked meals at a temperature of less than 5 deg centrigrade, the regulations set the level at 10 deg centigrade. Environmental health officers think that that is too high.
Any food that is expected to be sold within four hours of a shop opening for business does not have to be kept in a refrigerator. A shopkeeper needs to claim only that the item is expected to be sold within that time to avoid the refrigeration requirements. There are no specific regulations about staff training or good practice, to which the right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) referred in his speech. Given the proliferation of available outlets for fast foods, and modern food technology and the different types of food that are available to the consumer, that omission must be dealt with.
Under the Food Act 1984, there is no statutory obligation, only an implied one, for environmental health officers to inspect all the food processing, retailing and eating places in their areas. In a positive spirit, I hope that when the Government review this state of affairs, these considerations will be central to the concerns that they seek to address, as well as the omissions that they seek to redress.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) : I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The thrust of his argument so far suggests that only Ministries have the ability to impose standards. Does he agree that retailers and supermarkets in this country, with their tight specifications and emphasis on hygiene--addressing the very points that he has raised about correct display of foods--are making a major contribution to the correct handling of food in this country?
Mr. Kennedy : I would not deny that at all. But if I may contrast that with the City of London, which is another area at times seen to be close to the hearts--not the pockets--of the Conservative party, the case for self-regulation is not persuasive or convincing. Although I am not casting aspersions on the retail trade in this country--its standards are among the highest anywhere in the world--it is always important, indeed imperative, for consumers to have at least the backstop of legislative enforcement. So I favour both the carrot and the stick, if the hon. Gentleman wishes to view it in that way.
Equally, with regard to environmental health, I emphasise the points made earlier about cutbacks to local authorities. At the week-end, Mr. Ainslie Bazely, the head of environmental health services in the London borough of Southwark was quoted in The Observer as pointing out the great problems that are being encountered. I do not believe that the position in Southwark is essentially different from what is happening around the country in terms of the shortage of people to fill environmental health positions. The number of vacancies for local authority environmental health officers has risen steadily from 135 in 1981 to 430 last year, out of a total of 6,000, which I assume to be for England and Wales. That vacancy level represents a 4.5 per cent. shortage outside London and a 9 per cent. shortage in London. That, too, must be an area to address if we are to overcome some of the difficulties that have been encountered in recent times.
Column 903In passing, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) for bringing to my attention at the start of the debate the need to give greater emphasis within our veterinary schools to the training of vets in food hygiene. The Riley report, which is being actively considered, concerns the rationalisation of provision of veterinary training centres and is liable to lead to a reduction of about 20 clinical teaching posts. Certainly, in a Scottish context, as the hon. Lady is anxious to have on the record, any move towards a single student centre or centre of excellence is bound to lead to the dismemberment of the Glasgow veterinary college school as it exists.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing : The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the majority of hon. Members who represent Scottish constituencies are concerned about the implications of the Riley report. The Secretary of State for Scotland today described it as a questionable report and said he would be discussing its contents with the principal of Glasgow university and other interested parties. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that MAFF has a responsibility to make
recommendations to the University Grants Committee on food hygiene and training prior to the closing date of 31 March for submissions in response to the Riley report, particularly in the light of European legislation on food hygiene?
Mr. Kennedy : I agree with the hon. Lady and I hope that the Minister, when replying to the debate, will say whether MAFF intends to have input along those lines so that the issue is before the UGC when considering the possible rationalisation proposals. Judging from the public comments of the Secretary of State to which the hon. Lady referred, I am sure that the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland will want to be part of that process.
In the shorter term, we shall have to await the report of the Select Committee to judge recent events, particularly in regard to salmonella and listeria. I echo the disappointment that others have expressed--I never thought that I would be saying this in this Chamber--that we shall not hear the former junior Minister, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), speak in this debate and that she is not likely to give evidence before the Select Committee. It is uncharacteristic of her to remain silent on these matters. It is also somewhat shameful in a parliamentary sense, given the public importance that has been attached to the issue. After all, her comments in December led to great public attention being given to the subject, and then there was the parliamentary follow-up and scrutiny.
We must strengthen existing institutions in MAFF. We should not blind ourselves to possible institutional changes in the longer term, by which I mean not just action in the United Kingdom but action in concert with our European colleagues.
We find the blanket nature of the condemnation in the Labour motion such that we could not support it in the Lobby tonight. Nor do we feel, short as we are of the details of the Bill which the Government will be bringing forward and the Select Committee's report, and taking account of the tone, tenor and substance of the Minister's speech, that we could support the Government in the Lobby.
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Sir Richard Body (Holland with Boston) : In the belief that the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) was his party's official spokesman on agriculture, I was anxious to hear his views. But I am afraid that his speech left me in a state of fog. I only wish that he could speak as clearly and succinctly as the Parliamentary Secretary, whom I congratulate on an admirable speech. I can only think of one argument in favour of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as it is constituted and that is the Minister himself, and the sooner he is fit and back at work the better pleased I shall be.
The root of the trouble, to parody the words of Dean Acheson, is that the Department has lost its role of 40 years and has yet to find another. For over four decades it has had one paramount aim--to induce farmers to increase their output, then to increase it again and then yet again. That objective has overridden probably every other consideration, and the results have been magnificent.
Our cows now produce twice as much milk as they did when I went as a pupil on a dairy farm years ago. As for arable farming, the fields that I know best now yield four times more wheat that they did 40 years ago. These are amazing figures, and MAFF's leadership deserves to be congratulated on that technical achievement, as do the farmers who have been goaded into participating in the campaign. That success has been due to four factors. They are the use of nitrates, pesticides, antibiotics and hormones.
Sir Richard Body : Breeding what? We are now breeding wheat which can take up more nitrates. If we did not have the necessary understanding of nitrates, we would not be breeding some of the varieties of wheat that we are now using. In terms of livestock, we are breeding pigs and poultry which can respond to antibiotics in their fattening. So I regard breeding as subordinate to the four factors that I listed.
Unfortunately, the Ministry, so obsessed with this demand to increase output, has turned a blind eye to some of the hazards of those factors. This heralds a great danger and will make it that much more difficult for MAFF to discharge its other functions in future. We have doubled time and again the use of nitrates, despite the serious evidence produced by the World Heath Organisation, despite experiments in the United States that have shown that 36 species of animals have died of cancer when given more than a certain level of nitrates, and despite the legislation that is now emerging from the European Community about the dangerous levels of nitrates in much of our water supply.
The same applies to the use of pesticides. Again, MAFF has turned a blind eye to much of what has gone on in the past, for many of the pesticides that we use on our farms today were approved years ago, when the standards of testing were abysmal compared with what they are today. Indeed, I doubt whether many of those pesticides would have been approved--this is not simply my view but that of scientists and toxicologists, who are better informed than I--if they were resubmitted for testing today. And everything is covered with an appalling cloak of secrecy so
Column 905that the farmer, let alone the consumer, is not permitted to know the toxicological dangers of the pesticides being used.
In the livestock sector, the Ministry has been warned time and again by doctors of the dangers of using antibiotics as a growth stimulant as well as a precaution against the spread of disease on intensive farms. Even the Minister's advisers have warned that we cannot go on using them because the time will come when they will cease to be effective. Doctors have said that the use of some antibiotics is having an adverse effect on patients who, though ill, are unable to respond to antibiotic treatment.
I think that the Ministry's record on hormones is, I regret to say, abysmal and I am not sure that it is very much better at the moment. I am very disturbed, and I hope that the whole House will be disturbed at the way Monsanto Chemicals and other drug companies seem quite confident that hormones will be allowed in this country for the purpose of getting our cows to produce between 20 and 40 per cent. more milk. Some in the medical profession say that the hormones may not affect 99 out of 100 of us, perhaps not even 999 out of a thousand of us, but there will still be perhaps one out of a thousand whom these hormones will affect. They are disappointed that the Ministry of Agriculture is being so secretive about the tests being carried out and have expressed concern that the relationship between the drug companies and some of the Ministry officials has gone further than it really should, and I hope the Ministry understands this concern.
I believe that the Ministry is now in difficulties and I am not talking about the ministerial team ; I am talking about those further down in the pyramid who have the very important task of making sure that our food is produced decently and well and is fit for all of us to eat. Having argued for so long, as they have that those four aids were necessary, and not only necessary but perfectly safe and that everyone could just forget about it because everyone in Whitehall knew best--that has been their attitude over and over again when people have questioned them--I do not believe that they can satisfactorily swallow their words and go along with the anxieties that are known in other parts of the world and are known to some extent in this country about those four aids which we in the farming community have had to use.
That is why I think that there has to be a major change and why I hope that MAFF will be slimmed down and that some of its functions relating to food, particularly the safety and hygiene of food, will be transferred to the Department of Health, where they belong. 5.43 pm
Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy) : I associate myself with the remarks about the Minister's absence. I sincerely hope he will be back with us quickly. While I was charitably hoping last night that the Minister's attack had not been serious, I was uncharitably hoping it might have been due to something he had eaten ; but that does not appear to be the case.
I am a little surprised at the tone of injured innocence on the Government Benches today, with the notable exception of the last speaker, and the over -defensiveness of the response to this motion. I think they protest too much. We are questioning not the independence but the effectiveness of the bodies that they set up to monitor food.
Column 906We are questioning not the fact that the Ministry has not tried, but the fact that it has failed, and these are two totally different things.
If I had wanted to get a cheap laugh today I would have stood here and read out the amendment from the Order Paper. I notice they are described as
"the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, Food and Consumers." That is a risible remark for you. Quite frankly, the amendment is laughable. It
"commends the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on its achievements on behalf of consumers in the fields of food safety, food surveillance and consumer information which means they have wide variety of choice of wholesome foods at reasonable prices ; commends its comprehensive response to the emergence of health risks" and so on.
Protecting the consumer? What of the tens of thousands who have suffered from food poisoning in the last year, or the many who have died? We have heard nothing from the Government side today about them. What way is that to protect the consumer? It is of small comfort to the people who have suffered as the result of the policies of this Government and their failure to act effectively.
Wholesome food? Are we referring to chickens perhaps, to eggs, to the burgers made from unmentionable slurries that are poured down people's throats, to the cotton-wool bread that they are forced to eat, to the salt and sugar laden convenience foods? "It is nothing to do with the Government," they cry. That is the level of intelligence of Conservative Back Benchers : "It is everybody's fault but ours." The only hygiene, the only handwashing, that is going on is Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the whole issue on the Government Front Bench. [Interruption.] We treat the Government's claims with the contempt they deserve, as a notable misstatement of reality, worthy of a party led by someone who boasts of having cut her commercial teeth on learning how to inject air into whipped cream to make it appear to go further. That is the level of commitment to food from this Government.
Sadly, much of our modern diet is harmful to us, and it does the Government no credit that they have failed to admit it, particularly in the Minister's disgracefully complacent contribution to this debate.
Dr. Moonie : This is a serious debate. I do not think the hon. Members who have been trying to intervene raise its tone very well. Let us consider first of all bacterial and viral contamination of food. The salmonella in chicken and eggs has been well described recently. They have been known to me, as a worker in preventive medicine, for well over 10 years, and nothing has been done about it over that period. Listeriosis likewise has been known for a long time to be a potential contaminant. Campylobacter infection in milk, sadly, is still prevalent. There are many other examples I could give, but I had better pass on.
Let us extend the analogy. Look at the controversy over aluminium so recently aired ; the hormones in meat ; the use of antibiotics, so eloquently referred to by the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body)
Column 907particularly in view of the fact that he is a farmer ; the artificial flavourings which are still used ; tasteless, mass-produced, factory-farmed beasts, pigs, calves, or for that matter, salmon ; the dangers to consumers from the cook-chill process which are only now being fully realised ; the equal dangers from many of the fast foods, some of which I know have very high standards of hygiene, but many of which sadly do not. There has been a case in the press recently, but the list is endless.
Let us not forget that an ill-balanced diet also contributes to illness in this country, a diet far too high in fat and salt, lacking in fibre and over-dependent on refined carbohydrate.
Dr. Moonie : This is a major contributory factor to our disgraceful position as the country with the highest death rate in the world from heart disease. Well-documented changes to that diet have been recommended over the years, but sadly no action has been taken in the light of them. None of this need be, if we had a Government who acted effectively on the information which they have had for years because, after all, there should be only two principles guiding our actions : first, that we should eat a healthy and well-balanced diet ; secondly, that our food should be free from harmful contaminants of any kind. Sadly, none of the Deprtments responsible for this are up to the job. MAFF, or MAFFC, as we ought to call it now, is the farmer's friend and is not going to put the interests of consumers first. The Department of Health has failed to accept responsibility, with the notable exception of the sadly departed hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), because it is much given to exhortation rather than effective action.
I was reminded, when the Minister mentioned the education programme that he and his colleagues were going to bring in, of the old story of a former director of Action on Smoking and Health, who at a major meeting on the dangers of smoking listened to speaker after speaker extolling the virtues of health education. It was only after the meeting finished that he discovered that they were all from the tobcco industry.
Let me conclude by mentioning the Department of the Environment. No, I shall pass on. We have had enough jokes.
Let me briefly outline a few of the actions that we could and should be taking, all of which would be cost-effective and have beneficial results. First, we should seriously consider removing responsibility for the quality of food from a Department that has shown itself unfit for the job and create an effective alternative--a Ministry of Consumer Affairs, which could handle a far wider range of issues than hitherto, or a non-elected body with some statutory powers. We should at least consider that.
Secondly, we should accept, and say that we accept, sensible proposals on nutrition that have been made over the past three years, and produce plans, particularly to reduce the amount of fat in the national diet.
Thirdly, we should consider restoring the office of medical officer of health for every district, as recommended last year by the Acheson report, which would strengthen the medical officer's role in the control of infection and the environmental health officer's function.