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Column 921Minister was forced to come to the Dispatch Box to answer the complaints about contaminated food supplies in Mid- Cornwall Meat Packers in the constituency of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor). I give the hon. Gentleman full credit for his private notice question.
The Ministry was notified in September 1988 that supplies of meat were arriving at Mid-Cornwall Meat Packers, which were contaminated with faecal matter and which were in an advanced state of decomposition. The Ministry was notified of that in September, but the first notification by the Ministry to the air and sea port health authorities was in mid-December after the hon. Member for Truro had raised that matter. During that three months, 30 consignments went through the port of Fishguard alone, each consignment consisting of 20 tonnes of beef from the Republic of Ireland, possibly contaminated--certainly much of that for Cornwall was contaminated. That meat was entering the food chain in this country, and not one warning or notice was given to either the port health authorities or to the scores of authorities whose environmental health officers are desperately trying to ensure adequate and wholesome supplies of food for the people of this country. We owe the environmental health officers a debt of gratitude.
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) rose --
Mr. Taylor : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will share my concern that, even since this matter was raised, the Government in this country or the Irish authorities have apparently not been able to establish how this happened and therefore can offer no reassurance that it is not continuing.
Mr. Davies : That is precisely my point. There is a problem in Ireland. We do not know whether it is because of illegal slaughtering, a black market deal in veterinary seals or a deliberate misuse of the precedures, but the fact is that the system allows contaminated meat to come into this country. At the port of entry, only 5 per cent. of that meat is inspected. Ninety-five per cent. of the supplies are then available to meat packers and to processors without further inspection. The Ministry did not see fit to issue one warning until the matter had been raised in the House.
Environmental health officers have unprecedented demands upon them due to the burgeoning food processing and preparation industries. There are now 300 fewer such posts than there were in 1983. The latest figures show that, of the 5,500 posts available, there are nearly 500 vacancies--that is, up 135 from 1981. The Government's squeezes on local government spending are to blame. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, however, as the sponsor of the Food Acts, must bear the responsibility for failing to insist that those Acts are fully implemented. It beggars belief that, at a time when public concern is at fever pitch--apparently with ample reason from what we have heard tonight--the Government can be so cavalier in their attitude to the consumer that they are cutting back on the very research that has hitherto been the backbone of the fight against such public health hazards.
Column 922The Government's attitude to chemical contamination is no better. Before the introduction of maximum residue levels in food regulations, The Food Magazine commented on a survey of British food by stating :
"43 per cent. of fruit and vegetables analysed have detectable pesticide residues. And out of a total of 426 chemicals cleared for use on Britain's farms, 166 are known or suspected of causing reactions or of links with cancer".
At the current rates of testing approved by the Ministry, it will take 50 years for all the commercially available chemicals to be tested. Until then, we cannot be confident that our domestically produced food has acceptable levels of residues.
It is not only the food we eat, but the water we drink. Millions of our citizens are now in receipt of water supplies containing unacceptable levels of nitrates. Even the Secretary of State for the Environment--who is not especially noted for his sensitivity in these matters--has noticed the problem. As part of his privatisation package, he is proposing to fleece the consumer to put right the problems caused by the historical neglect by MAFF.
The motion is tabled in the name of the Opposition. We know, however, that our concerns are shared by many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite. The hon. Members for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body), for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) have in their own ways expressed their vote of no confidence in the Ministry by calling for it to be stripped of its food responsibilities. We believe that, however well intentioned they are, their target is the wrong one. It is not the structure of the Government which is to blame, but their policies and their doctrinaire commitment to cuts, and especially deregulation. That is why we invite those who oppose the Government to join us in the Lobby.
Mr. Ryder : With the leave of the House, I should like to respond to the debate. It is all too easy at the end of such debates for Ministers to describe them as excellent. I believe, however, that this time we have enjoyed an excellent debate with well-informed contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Newark (Mr. Alexander), for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby), for Northampton South (Mr. Morris), for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body) and for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord), among others. On the Labour side, I especially enjoyed and listened carefully to the speeches of the hon. Members for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) and for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones). Opposition Front Bench spokesmen asked about the protein processing order. I should like to reply to that point and several others in the short time remaining to me. If sampling of a plant's products reveals salmonella contamination, a notice is served requiring compliance with the bacteriological standard within a time limit. Failure to comply, without lawful authority or excuse, constitutes an offence. In 1987 most operators were able to comply within the time limit and their products proved clear of salmonella on resampling. In the few cases where resampling still revealed contamination it was not considered to be a deliberate failure and, therefore, it was not appropriate to bring prosecutions. In only one case was continuing failure to comply revealed on a second resampling. Even in that case the subsequent tests indicated that a salmonella-free product had been achieved.
Column 923The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) asked about restrictions on farms suspected of infection with salmonella. The decision to impose restrictions has depended and will continue to depend on an assessment of the importance of each case and on an overall assessment of the risks from each strain of salmonella. The hon. Gentleman was also anxious to know whether we had--I use his words--cut the research project in Bristol. The Goverment's financial support for the research work undertaken will not be lost. As my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, that support will be diverted to other important microbiological research. The redeployment of the staff is also being considered by their employers--in this case the Agricultural and Food Research Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge was anxious to know why three questions that he had put down to our Ministry had been transferred to the Department of Health. I promised to look into that matter, but the prime responsibility for microbiological surveillance, including listeria, rests with the Department of Health. That is why that Department will be responsible for answering his questions. The hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) asked about veterinary training. That matter rests primarily with the Department of Education and Science and the University Grants Committee. I shall pass the hon. Gentleman's comments on to my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friends in the DES.
The right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) attacked the Ministry for devoting resources to compensation instead of tackling the problems. As my right hon. Friend the Minister has pointed out on several occasions, however, not least in a lengthy written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central last week. We have arranged a series of measures to deal with the problem and many have already been introduced. My right hon. Friend said that this amounts to one of the most comprehensive programmes to combat salmonella anywhere in the world.
Listeria was mentioned by the hon. Member for South Shields and other hon. Members, and it is important to appreciate that my Department, together with the Department of Health and
representatives of the industry, is considering current food processing, distribution, retailing and labelling to ensure the safety of the food supply. Appropriate research is being carried out where information is lacking and codes of practice are being developed in conjunction with the industry. The Ministry is funding research projects to investigate improved methods of detecting the bacteria and how processing factors and storage conditions affect the growth and survival of this particular strain of listeria which is causing so much concern.
The motion concerns the Government's handling of food and its effect on consumers. Today I pointed out twice that this is the first time that the Opposition have selected a Supply day to debate this issue since we came into Government in 1979. To claim that the Government are not concerned about consumers is as fatuous as claiming that the conductor is interested only in his orchestra and not the audience. The Government have always taken their responsibilities to consumers and
Column 924taxpayers far more seriously than has the Labour party. Since the Government took office 10 years ago food prices have increased on average at 5.6 per cent. per annum. That is nearly 2 per cent. a year less than the rate of inflation. Therefore, consumers have benefited under the Government. Prices are now 17 per cent. lower in real terms than they were when we took office in May 1979.
What about the Labour Government's record between 1974 and 1979? My hon. Friends will remember that, during the 1970s, food prices were supposed to be controlled by the ill-fated Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. That was such a misnomer that it even defied the Trade Descriptions Act 1968.
The Government have a responsibility for the entire food chain and that responsibility has been exercised with particular emphasis on the joint interests of the taxpayer and the consumer. What a contrast that is with the Labour Government's record when the well-being of consumers was eroded by disruptions to the food chain caused by strikes and that Government's inefficiency.
We have allowed for the operation of the market and, therefore, we have created the environment in which the food industry has become one of the most successful sectors of the economy--it accounts for no less than 10 per cent. of the gross national product and employs more than 3 million people. Under the Labour Government, consumers faced price rises almost every day and consumer choice was impeded by ineffective, muddled and restrictive economic policies. Under Labour, consumers were faced with food shortages and lack of choice. Now consumers have better choice and better quality food than ever before. I am happy to defend the record of the Government against the Labour record today or any day the Opposition choose.
During the 1980s we have taken a consistent line. We have fought hard in Brussels to control the excesses of the CAP and that is exactly what my right hon. Friend was doing last night when he was taken ill. We have reduced prices, surpluses and the waste of taxpayers' money. We have increased expenditure on food safety and, consequently, given a better deal to consumers.
Several hon. Members, including the Opposition spokesmen, have alleged that the Government have cut research and development projects on food safety, but nothing could be further from the truth. I happen to have with me, for the sake of convenience, a computer list of all such R and D projects funded by my Department during the past two years. If I had brought the computer list for the past 10 years I would have been unable to carry it, yet the Opposition claims that we have cut such R and D work.
Since the 1970s, the quality and variety of the food available has changed. The Labour party tried to dictate the composition of food through detailed food law. That discredited and outmoded approach acted as a disincentive to innovation, and the failure of the United Kingdom dairy industry to market low-fat milk earlier than it did was, in part, due to Labour-inspired rules about the fat content of milk.
The Opposition's allegations today have plummeted to the depths of matchless distortion. By attacking the Government, the Opposition have cast aspersions on the scores and scores of vets and other experts whose advice is acted on by the Ministry ; that includes scores and scores of doctors and academics. Those scientists, doctors and vets are men and women of the highest probity and their
Column 925skills and devotion to duty are beyond doubt. They are admired in Britain and respected and envied in Europe. They help to ensure the safety of our food and they will resent and reject, as I do, the accusations levelled against them by the Opposition.
Today the Opposition have behaved like rabbits and, as students of Beatrix Potter will know, rabbits that stray into Mr. McGregor's garden generally end up in Mrs. McGregor's pot. I ask the House to reject the Labour party motion and to pass our own.
Mr. Ron Davies rose --
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) : The Parliamentary Secretary's speech was a disgraceful response to what he described as a fine debate. It is a shame that the Government cannot do better to answer the deep-seated concerns that have been expressed throughout the country about the purity of food except by resorting, once again, to cheap electioneering and debating points about what happened in the past 10 years.
Do the Government not understand how seriously disturbed the whole nation is by the many cases of food contamination? We have seen a display from the Minister who waved about a long list of computer-- Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow) rose in his place, and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to. Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question :--
The House divided : Ayes 206, Noes 313.
Division No. 46] [7 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Cunningham, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)