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Column 901and disabled and, increasingly, in schools. That dangerous trend is definitely the result of the Government's policy of cuts and enforced privatisation within local authorities. It is equally disgraceful that baby food containing aluminium has still not been banned by the Government, in spite of the call by doctors and scientists that it should be banned.
The result of the Government's policies, which put the interests of powerful profit-making lobbies before the interests of the community, is always more work for women. Cases of salmonella and other types of food poisoning have increased enormously since 1986 and the work of looking after the sick members of their families and managing on less money if the wage earner is ill all falls on women's shoulders. They bear the brunt of the policies of this uncaring Government. Intolerable problems are created when older people succumb to senile dementia brought on by aluminium in the water supply. Some chemicals that are suspected of causing cancer are being used by farmers and residues meant for plants above the surface are seeping down and ending up in drains and watercourses. About 4 million Britons drink water that breaches EEC nitrate levels. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is not invoking the powers that it was granted under the Control of Pollution Act 1974. We in this country can no longer boast about having safe water. People are deeply worried about the future standard and cost of water when the industry is privatised.
A further cause of concern, which has already been mentioned, is the future maintenance of sewers and the increasing problems of rodents, which pose a further health hazard. I have raised that subject many times since becoming a Member of the House.
Chemicals and pesticides used by farmers are now said to penetrate the skins of apples and potatoes, so the earlier recommendation to wash all fruit before eating it will not help. The increasing numbers of allergy eczema cases probably stem from the increased use of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides.
Air and ground pollution from nuclear power is also a problem. The books have not been closed on the effects of Chernobyl, but the Government are proposing to build yet more nuclear power stations, although they do not yet know how to dismantle the ones that were built 30 years ago.
There is a marked class gradient affecting one's chances of survival and remaining healthy in old age. The ability to buy good food is a major factor. Several reports have shown that working-class people and the poorer ethnic minority groups have the poorest health. That point is especially relevant to my constituency. In the case of ethnic minority groups, poorer health does not stem from their type of diet, which is often healthier than the usual diet in the West, but is directly related to poverty.
We need cheap food, but we also need good food. We need a Government policy that considers the interests of the consumers and makes them paramount. We need a Government who are not the puppets of vested interests. We need a new Consumer Protection Act, which not only requires companies to trade safely, as the Consumer Protection Act 1987 requires them to do, but one that is extended to include agricultural produce. We need a
Column 902Government policy that is less concerned with cover-ups and allaying public fears, and more concerned with cleaning up the increasingly dangerous mess into which we are drifting.
The public do not want to be assured that healthy people can take a fair gamble in eating food that is infected with listeria and salmonella. The public want proper control to make food safe for everyone.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : It is a remarkable fact that, in a debate that has been well trailed and given much publicity, there are precisely nine hon. Members on the Opposition Benches and 12 on the Government Benches. There could not be a better demonstration of how much the Opposition parties truly care about the health of the nation in relation to food.
Mr. Frank Cook rose --
Mr. Cook rose --
Mr. Cook : The hon. Gentleman is as accurate in his counting of eggs as he is in his counting of hon. Members in the Chamber. He cannot fail to get things wrong this evening. I sympathise with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in having to deal with him.
Mr. Field : That was probably the least worthwhile intervention that we shall hear this evening. However, it confirms the accuracy of the statement that I made to the Leader of the Opposition when I pointed out that his hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North regularly takes an egg in the Members' Tea Room in the morning-- [Interruption.] Well, I have seen him order as many as five, but that was probably when he was taking them up to those of his hon. Friends queuing to introduce ten-minute Bills. Nevertheless, that confirms that the hon. Gentleman consumes eggs so, although the Leader of the Opposition was endeavouring to tell us how dangerous those nourishing little things are, it is clear that members of his team are continuing to consume them.
I thought that the first rule of politicians was that there were no votes in sewerage. Obviously, part of the new Labour party review is that there are votes in Montezuma's revenge. The Opposition's contribution to this evening's debate on the motion standing in the name of the Leader of the Opposition should be completely refuted. For me, the only effect of the whole debate has been that I have eaten more eggs--boiled, scrambled and fried--in public in the last few months than ever before.
It is hypocritical of Opposition Members, with their mouths full, to criticise farmers, particularly during food and farming year. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) made a good point about the agricultural contribution to the balance of payments. It is hypocritical to criticise farmers when the demand from housewives is for cheap, good-value food. A retired medical officer of health told me that he hated a warm Christmas because the turkeys hung around in the
Column 903butchers and salmonella bred inside them. He guaranteed that after a warm Christmas there would be an increase in tummy upsets. However, I shall not dwell on that.
In his speech in Southampton this week, the Leader of the Opposition spoke of care of the environment. I should like to speak about pollution, particularly on our beaches. I noted that the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) used the usual Social and Liberal Democrat trick of donning the mantle of protecting the environment. We have heard so much recently about the water industry that I felt that in a debate on food and water I should draw the attention of the House to the remarkable progress that has been made in my constituency in the disposal of sewage and the cleaning up of the environment.
In 1984, a triple ditch oxidation plant costing £2 million was installed at the Fairlee sewerage works on the Medina river. There is one similar installation in Kent and another in Denmark. In recent memory, before the plant's installation, the river Medina was so polluted--I believe, though I have not been able to check, that this was under a Labour Government--that the medical officer of health banned the consumption of mussels taken from the river because of the number of bacteria they contained due to the raw sewage in it. As a result of the installation of that plant there has been a remarkable improvement in the quality of the river water.
In Cowes, an outfall system costing £8 million was installed which used, for the first time in the United Kingdom, the horizontal direction- drilling technique for the cross-Medina river and seaward outfall. At Sandown, the clariflow system was pioneered by Blue Circle Industries and Portsmouth polytechnic. It was installed in 1985, at a cost of £1.5 million, and under a Conservative Government, long before the hype about the care of the environment and the nation's health. It is so revolutionary that it is the only sewerage treatment plant of its type in the world. It relies on the injection of clariflow--a chemical that reduces the bacteria to make the water ideal as an EEC standard bathing beach. In the past two years, a new sewer outfall costing £8 million has been installed at Ryde. This debate is about not simply the safe disposal of sewerage, but the quality of drinking water. At Sandown water works, Southern Water has installed a new Neptune Nichols system and at the Knighton water works the iron removal plant has just been completed, and the island's entire water supply is now up to EEC standard. In the past two years, the expenditure per head of population has been more than £80. When that is set against the average water bill of £120 per head for the Isle of Wight, even Opposition Members will begin to realise that this country's water industry is investing in the nation's future and environment.
For far too long water authorities have been the judge and jury on pollution, but water privatisation will bring an end to that remarkable situation. Under the new Bill, for the first time the criminal law will apply to pollution and the standard of the drinking water supply.
Frankly, Opposition Members' contributions to this health debate amount to chicken feed.
Column 904The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) began his speech by suggesting that the absence of Opposition Members showed their lack of interest in the nation's health and food. The most conspicuous absentee from today's debate has been the Prime Minister, and I suggest that he addresses his remarks to her.
I shall try to relate my brief remarks to a comment made by the Secretary of State for Health at the beginning of the debate in response to a question put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), who asked why it had taken the Secretary of State two months to answer a question that he had tabled. The Secretary of State replied that he was sorry but that the question had probably remained in some official's bottom drawer for those two months.
That answer sums up the Government's attitude to this problem. First, the Government have given low priority to food and health. The Secretary of State falsely accused the Opposition of not addressing those issues. As has been pointed out by several Opposition Members, we have raised the dangers caused to health and the environment by the Government's successive cuts in research. The number of environmental health officers has been cut as a consequence of their policy.
The Government have also wholly failed adequately to regulate private businesses because they prefer profits to people. The Opposition are right to say that the Government have accorded the problem a low priority.
The other notable aspect of the Secretary of State's remarks was his reference to an official. Passing the buck has been another characteristic of the Government's handling of this issue. The prime victim of that trait was the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), to whom the Secretary of State passed the buck towards the end of last year.
To return to the question of low priority, the Secretary of State's comments and the Government's attitude make it clear that not just written answers, but consumers have been left in the bottom drawer over the past several months. Meanwhile, the producers have been in the Secretary of State's top drawer. That is exemplified by the now notorious defensive briefing that was conducted by Government officials and representatives of the egg industry as early as last June, with the Government feeling it should be their duty to get into huddles with egg producers to produce defensive briefings rather than telling the public at that stage what they knew about the problem. That says a lot about the Government's attitude.
When the Government did move, it was to alert officials of the National Health Service. They gave the excuse that they did that because people might be at risk in hospitals, ignoring the fact that most sick people would not be in hospital but would be at home being looked after by relatives and would be equally at risk. It is fair to say that the Government have consistently afforded low priority to the issue and put it in the bottom drawer.
What I really wish to deal with is the trait of passing the buck as exemplified by the Secretary of State's response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes).
The right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) spoke about the confusion over the issue. The responsibility must lie with the Government. The right hon. Gentleman also spoke of irresponsible scaremongering. The right hon. Gentleman was asked whether he would associate the hon. Member for
Column 905Derbyshire, South with that irresponsible scaremongering, and he coyly declined to answer the question directly. But it must have been clearly in his mind. I would have said to him-- unfortunately he is not in the House at the moment--that if there was scaremongering and confusion, the responsibility lay not with the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South alone but, in the last analysis, with the Government and especially with the Secretary of State for whom the hon. Lady was working at that time.
In response to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, the Secretary of State repeated the astonishing admission, which he also made to the Select Committee on Agriculture when he came before us, that he had advised the hon. Lady to keep quiet following her controversial statement on 3 December about most egg production in this country being affected by salmonella. When the Secretary of State came before the Select Committee he said that his advice to her to keep quiet had been given because he felt that Sir Donald Acheson was the most appropriate person to go about the country and to clarify the question of salmonella infection. Again, I suggest that he was passing the buck to an official rather than taking responsibility upon himself. The solution offered to the problem of the controversy generated by the remarks of the former junior Health Minister was wholly inadequate and stretches credulity.
Mr. Kenneth Clarke : The hon. Gentleman totally ignores the fact that I spent the afternoon answering questions on the subject in the House of Commons on the Monday in question. I received enormous coverage of my remarks because of the interest in the subject. Similarly, the chief medical officer is the best placed person inside Government circles to give medical advice to the public. I simply do not understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying today, which was the gist of his questioning in the Select Committee--that because we gave advice in that way for 24 hours, we somehow failed to correct the impression created the day before. People like the hon. Gentleman, and some of his hon. and right hon. Friends on the day, were more intent on pursuing the personality issues that they thought were raised by the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South. That would have got in the way of information getting to the public, if they had been allowed their day out on the Monday trying to pursue my hon. Friend.
Mr. Macdonald : It is astonishing for the Secretary of State to say that the junior health Minister would have got in the way of providing correct information to the public, and it shows a grave lack of confidence in the abilities of his former junior Minister.
Mr. Clarke : I did not say that she would have got in the way, but that the hon. Gentleman and people like him who saw the whole thing in terms of the personality of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South would have got in the way of information being given to the public.
Column 906conspicuous to the whole nation by her silence. The very fact that she remained silent attracted the attention that the Secretary of State now complains of.
If I could use a literary reference, I shall repeat a story about Sherlock Holmes and the dog that did not bark in the night. Holmes was investigating a crime and referred Dr. Watson to the curious incident of the dog in the night. Watson said that the dog did nothing in the night and Holmes replied that that was the curious incident. That is what people are saying about the former junior Minister. It is even more curious because, on this occasion, the dog did bark in the night but then was put quietly to sleep.
The Secretary of State came up with a new excuse in response to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, which relates to his previous feeble excuse, namely, that if he had asked the hon. Lady to clarify and expand on and qualify her statement, she would have been subjected to the unfriendly questioning of the media and from the Opposition. It is astonishing for the Secretary of State to suggest that the hon. Lady needed the Secretary of State's protection from Opposition Members. The central mystery remains unsolved. If the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South said nothing wrong in her remarks on 3 December, why did she have to resign? If, on the other hand, she said something wrong, why was she gagged and advised not to clarify or to expand upon her statement? If what she said was neither right nor wrong but simply ambiguous, which is the Secretary of State's interpretation, the same question must be addressed to the Secretary of State. Why was she advised to keep silent and advised not to expand her remarks?
I remind the Secretary of State that he can pass the buck only so far. Those who pass the buck to ensure their own survival will eventually die by having the buck passed to them. The Prime Minister has today sent in the two Ministers--
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham) : I wish to speak about the listeria hysteria. I must admit that in the course of the debate I felt somewhat sick ; not sick to the stomach, because I had cheese for lunch and I thrived on it, but sick at heart at what we are seeing in the House of Commons and generally in the grand commotion to put fear into the British people about the food they eat. There can be nothing more base than taking that approach. I am also made sick at heart to see Opposition Members leaping on the bandwagon in the hope of demolishing a few Conservative Members, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie).
The worst possible example of this hysteria during the afternoon was the shroud-waving of the tragic case of the death of a baby, which was far too reminiscent of the way in which the great debate over the NHS was conducted. That shroud-waving was to the shame of the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock).
Mr. Marland : I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree with me that we should have a little more background information as to what actually infected the mother who was carrying that child, because I have much sympathy with my hon. Friend's remarks?
Mr. Arnold : Indeed, I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend. So frequently, in the health debates in this Chamber, and now in this debate, have family tragedies been bandied about without the facts upon which hon. Members could come to a view being substantiated. I am angry at the current situation because there is in my constituency a modern cheese packer. H. T. Webb and Company. That firm was set up three years ago in the Springhead enterprise zone, and today it gives work to 300 of my Northfleet constituents. Thanks to the hysteria in which Opposition Members indulge, there has been a drop in sales, and 200 of those workers, in the packing and production part of the plant, are now on short time, with the fear of redundancy.
Let us look at the facts of the matter. Last year there were only 287 notified cases of listeria. It is not known how many of those were caused by eating contaminated food. Clearly, the right hon. Member for Islwyn knows even less about listeria, as he demonstrated today when he strayed from his carefully prepared text to try to answer a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham), which he seemed incapable of doing. Listeria is nothing new ; it has been present on the farms of this country for generations, particularly in silage and in cows and grazing sheep. But it is containable if sensible hygiene is practised. The success over the years can be seen in the survival of our farming community. Listeria has had no significant impact on the health or mortality rate of farmers.
It is cheese packers and producers and their workers who are being affected by the current hysteria. How has my local firm reacted to the very real problems? When the problem of listeria in cheese raised its head in early 1987 the firm took acton. The problem, it may be recalled, raised its head in a serious manner in the Swiss canton of Vaud, where the local cheese, Vacherin Mont D'Or, was found to be infected. The firm in my constituency required all suppliers to certify their cheese to be listeria-free, and it did this by insisting on certification by laboratories in the country of origin--usually in the universities--and in all cases authorised by the respective countries' Governments. It then carried out continuous testing in its own laboratories. Hon. Members may care to know how much listeria it has found. The answer is none. The tests for dangerous listeria have always proved to be negative.
One thing that I would, however, ask of my right hon. and learned Friend is that the advice given to the public be more clear. The public have been advised to avoid some cheese. What they should have been told is that only ripened soft cheese, such as Brie or Camembert, is liable to listeria, and 90 per cent. of that is made from pasteurised cream and milk. Tests have been carried out regularly, both here and abroad. We might care to reflect, when we consider both Brie and Camembert and their propensity to dangerous listeria, that generations of Frenchmen have eaten these cheeses, yet the population of France has not been decimated.
Other fresh soft cheeses, all of which have acidity below 4.8 pH cannot, technically, carry listeria. We are safe in buying cheese such as roule , Philadelphia or potted cheeses and yoghurts with foil tops that are available in supermarkets.
The hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), who, no doubt, is also at dinner, reported to this House the loss of over 200 jobs in his constituency owing to the collapse of an egg producer. He was told that less than an
Column 908hour after his leader had made great play on public fears. The producer no doubt thought his cause, in restoring public confidence, was lost, and threw in the towel and, with it, those jobs. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State was right : the Opposition are concerned with woolly hats and Edwina-baiting and with scoring party political points. What is at stake is thousands of jobs in the food industry and the restoration of faith in public advice on food safety. To my mind, the Secretary of State's long speech earlier today clarified that advice. I hope that it will be reported clearly to the public and that it will be heeded. 7.56 pm
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) : The House will, I hope, forgive me for confessing that I have no financial or constituency interest in the food industry. I make no plea on behalf of the agricultural business or the procesing business or the storage and distribution arms of the industry. For me, and for many hon. Members, the interests of the public are paramount.
I fundamentally reject any suggestion from Conservative Members that legitimate concerns voiced by Labour Members about the standards that prevail in the food business are harmful to the interests of this country. Unlike advisers to the Government, I do not believe that the
"concept of consumer protection has to be balanced against business considerations."
In truth, it is the failure of this Government to impose standards that has had the effect of undermining both export potential and the domestic purchasing of products. I am very concerned that hon. Members on the Government side seem wedded to the concept of voluntary regulation when, so obviously, voluntary regulation has brought us to our current sorry state.
I wish to draw the attention of the House to the threat posed to research on listeria being carried out in my constituency. Staff at the Moredun research institute have been studying the effects of listeria on sheep, and their studies may well have beneficial implications for humans. The research being carried out by Dr. William Donnaghie has benefited from a grant of £10,000 a year from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for Scotland. But the Barnes review has cast doubt on the future funding of this project beyond 1991. This Government review is recommending that listeria research must be funded by industry instead of by the Government, but all the attempts by the Moredun research institute to secure funds from industry have failed. Industry does not appear to be interested in funding such work, I am told ; there is simply no profit in it.
Yet earlier this month the Department of Agriculture warned, in a press statement, about the dangers to pregnant women of contact with sheep or lambs. The infection which causes enzootic abortion in sheep can also affect humans. Unfortunately, the Department is not so willing to make long -term financial commitment to research and development in this area. In the White Paper on the Government's expenditure plans to 1992, which was debated in this House on 9 February, the Government make their commitment clear. Chapter 4 shows that the expenditure on agriculture, fisheries and food research and development is falling. My hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) was perfectly correct when he lamented the cuts in food research. Table 4.24, on
Column 909page 18 of the Government's expenditure plans, sets out the cut at £20 million in real terms by 1991-92. The cut in MAFF expenditure on agricultural and food research and development has occurred in each year from 1984 to 1988 and will have fallen from £125.1 million in 1984 to £88.8 million in 1992.
It is hardly surprising that the Government seek to cover their tracks by looking for scapegoats. Earlier Professor Lacey, who has an interest in the food industry, was called a crank. The Government have been accused in responsible newspapers such as The Independent of covering up. There has been the headline :
"Secret document charts spread of salmonella".
Other newspapers have pointed to the cover-up in the baby milk scandal involving aluminium. The headline in The Observer was : "Danger baby milks kept secret."
These newspapers are not the rags that have been condemned on both sides of the House ; they are not given to hyperbole and their sales are not dependent on sensationalism and exaggeration. I have quoted from The Observer and The Independent, respected papers for which the Minister, the Secretary of State and their colleagues write. The Government's search for scapegoats has to end. Their attacks on the press have to stop. Their attacks on the public and their pious view that the public should take almost full responsibility for any food poisoning must also end. The Government have to face up to their responsibility. The problem emanates from their cuts in research and development and from their championing of the interests of business rather than the consumer and of profit against the public good. 8.1 pm
Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South) : I declare an interest as an adviser to a trade body and to a company in the food industry. If the charge of the Opposition is to stand, they have to prove that the Government, by their actions, have ignored the problems in the food chain. The Labour party itself has consistently challenged the Government with alternative policies which it believes would solve the problems.
The key determinant of whether food poisoning is being controlled and analysed properly lies with the public health laboratory at Colindale. I hope that hon. Members who take an interest in the subject have visited Colindale. I took the opportunity last year to spend a morning there. I do not think that anyone who has visited that establishment can be in the least worried that the medical side is being ignored. That extensive laboratory, which is well staffed and equipped, is doing an enormous amount of analytical work on salmonella and on other problems in the food chain.
For anyone to suggest that the range of work is superficial or inadequate shows a complete misunderstanding of the work of the laboratory. The work is being done competently and with great thoroughness. The nation should recognise that. It is to the work of the laboratory that Ministers in the Department of Health and in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food react. At the time that I visited the laboratory--I have had no reason to believe anything to the contrary since--the right warnings were given at the right time.
Column 910If that is so, one asks why there has been an increase in problems, particularly when the standard of living is rising noticeably. The problems in the poultry industry have not arisen in the last 12 months. There has been salmonella in chickens probably for 10 years or more. The Secretary of State for Health correctly pointed out that the most recent strain is difficult and that the evidence is that it was introduced through infected feed material.
The underlying problem has been there for quite a long time. Whereas in the 1950s and 1960s the House, Members of Parliament, the press and the public accepted what scientists put forward as a result of their analyses of food and nutritional values, that is no longer so. Every time scientists present reports, they are challenged by the media or by what I call the greater green movement. There is a great distrust of what scientists say. That is a worrying dimension. A small group of activitists challenge everything that scientists, particularly food scientists, put forward.
I understand that E numbers are supposed to be a safeguard. No doubt other hon. Members share my experience of people saying in surgery, "Does it mean that we should worry if a product has an E number on it?" So E numbers have had the reverse effect. Through the media the public are calling for the removal of preservatives and additives, and for restrictions on herbicides and pesticides. There is a flotilla of claims that these are all harmful in food manufacture and production. We have even reached the extraordinary stage that because a tiny percentage of hyperactive children react to a particular additive, some people demand its removal from food products. I think that a distrust of scientists is causing some of the problems today.
On my way to the House at lunch time I listened to the "World at One". It was announced on the programme that six supermarket chains had set up a hotline called "Foodline" as a food safety advisory service. What a good thing they have done. By taking the initiative, the food chains have shown a proper regard for a difficult situation. What was the comment by the BBC reporter? He asked, "Can we trust what is being put out by these interested parties who are food retailers?" He also asked, "Can we trust Government statistics?" When people in an industry which is fundamental to the economy take action to help, it seems extraordinary that commentators should immediately debunk it and assume that the whole thing is being done in self -interest.
A key determinant has to be what the Labour party offer as an alternative. Opposition Members will remember several documents produced by their party. One was called
"Food Policy--a Priority for Labour"
It was a microcosm of the National Advisory Committee on Nutrition Education and the chairman of NACNE appeared to have written three quarters of it. I assume that that was dumped because we got another document called "Health for All", which was a charter on preventive health. It included about half a page on healthy eating, which was indicative of the deep research done by the Labour party. Very little of it had anything to do with what we are debating today, apart from something about withdrawing additives if there were doubt about safety, and a little about the irradiation of food.
On Friday of last week there was a press release from the Labour party. I note that it was on House of Commons paper. I hope that the Select Committee on Services will
Column 911check why two Front Bench Labour Members issued a press release on House of Commons paper because I believe that that is illegal. That is on the record and I hope that someone will check on it.
"It is clear that the voice of the consumer has taken second place to that of the producer."
That is absolute rubbish and bunkum.
They then go on to say :
"We believe our proposal would have averted the problems that arose with salmonella and listeria."
The hon. Gentleman would know if he had listened to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State today that we do not yet know what the answer is to the new strain of salmonella. Perhaps he does know, and perhaps he will inform the scientific world of the answer, but I do not think he knows it.
Finally, we see that the proposal is to set up a food standards agency
"which would be independent of Ministers and able to speak authoritatively on food protection matters."
The press statement continues :
"The Agency will be responsible to the Cabinet Office and to Parliament."
Who will answer in this House? Will people from the Cabinet Office come here and answer questions on the food standards agency, or will it be the Public Accounts Committee?
Is this a deeply thought-out policy arising from all the policy documents? No. The truth is that it was knocked out at the end of last week on House of Commons paper and thought to be a good idea. It is a very shallow approach to a very difficult problem. The real truth is that the Labour party has not done any work on this. It has just run a scare programme and frankly I think that that is deplorable. I suppose that one good thing has come out of this debate, and that is that the people of Britain recognise the importance of food safety and that they should listen to the scientists and the people in the public health laboratories. When the chief medical officer makes a statement, that is a statement based on fact, and he is the person they should listen to, not to the media or the other hype and the sort of comments that we have heard from the Labour party today.
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe) : I would like to make it quite clear that I have no connection at all with the food industry. Unlike some Conservative Members, I have not been paid to come along here to today to state the case of vested interests. I want to examine the facts at issue. I am not interested in scaremongering or in trying to frighten consumers. I am interested in getting to the bottom of what I think has been the irresponsible handling of the situation by the Government and in seeing whether there are any practical lessons to be learnt.
I believe that the root of the problem lies with the whole attitude of deciding that the market should be self-regulating, and that goes back to a comment made in 1980, when the Labour party argued for a tightening of controls in the protein processing order, which we had discovered was not working successfully. It was said in
Column 912response that in the present economic climate the industry should itself determine how best to proceed. The underlying theme of the Government's food policy is that the industry itself should be allowed to decide its own priorities.
When we had a discussion about regulation, about a policy, about a strategy, it was said to be the policy of a nanny state. I would rather have a nanny state than a free market economy, which simply lets loose the Lucrezia Borgia of the free market into the kitchens of this country. When we are taken to this extreme, the choice for the consumer lies between salmonella and listeria. I emphasise that that is taking the issue to the extreme.
I would be the first to concede that there are many good food producers and many caring farmers in terms of standards of food production, but some Conservative Members have been trying to blame the consumer, the housewife, the people who cook the food. It seems to be they who are responsible for the outbreak, not the producers. I know it is fair to say that cooking methods have changed over the years. We have microwave cooking now, for example. However, it is equally fair to say that farming methods have changed over the years. They are far more intensive now. There is far greater use of inputs, chemicals, agro-business, agro-product methods.
On that point, I wonder whether the Minister will take into account the animal welfare issue. It is fair to say that the Secretary of State for Health did mention that many people were concerned about such things as battery farming and, apart from animal welfare, there are very real arguments. There is evidence to suggest, for example, that if there is infection within intensive animal units, it is spread at a far greater rate than it would be if there were more space.
There is also a problem with the grandparent stock of hens, for example, and the cloning that there is these days in intensive animal units. It is something which needs to be looked at in terms of the conditions of intensive animals--the cage spaces--and whether there should be a move away from battery egg production towards deep litter egg production. Although deep litter production is not exactly perfect, it is more desirable than the intensive method, where hens spend the bulk of their lives, on average two years, locked up in a tiny cage, with no daylight and no floor to stand on. A great many people are concerned about that. I think that the answer is that people will eventually decide themselves through their own pockets, through green consumerism, that they will not purchase the products of such intensive methods of farming.
There has also been concern about pigs. Again, I would pay tribute to some of my local farmers, who have introduced different models of farrowing cages which allow sows to stand up and turn round, something which the traditional farrowing cage does not allow. That is a step in the right direction.
Nevertheless, although there are caring farmers and good producers, there are also other farmers and producers who simply want to maximise their profits without taking any interest in the welfare of their animals, or anything else for that matter.
I believe that we need to do more research into intensive animal rearing to find not only the best way of producing food for the consumer, but to pay more attention to the condition of battery animals and intensive farm animals.
One of the worst issues that has come to light in this whole inquiry into what has been happening with food is