Previous Section Home Page

Column 913

the way that the Government have been cutting back on research and development in the farming sector. We already know that there is a proposal to cut £30 million from the AFRC over a number of years in a move to shift the research to what is deemed near market research. We have heard from some Conservative Members that they accept that the farming industry itself is fragmented and it is very difficult for the industry to pick up the research on this. The real condemnation comes with a scheme at Bristol led by a Dr. Mead, which was told last summer, before this scare on salmonella started, that it would be axed in March of this year. That research scheme was actually very near finding ways of eliminating salmonella in chicken and is now deemed to be ready and suitable to be picked up for the market. On the Select Committee, when I asked whether any firm had picked up this scheme, the answer was no. So here we have a

Government-funded scheme which was near to developing a system for eliminating salmonella which has been axed and thrown on to the free market to be picked up or not. I think that that is an irresponsible way of dealing with important research to tackle the serious problem of salmonella.

The hon. Gentleman talked about positive suggestions from the Labour party ; I will give him one now. The Government set aside £19 million for compensation to farmers and only £3 million has been taken up. A total of £16 million is earmarked in the Budget. Why do the Government not take some of that £16 million and inject it into the various research programmes investigating animal husbandry, intensive farming, salmonella elimination and methods of identifying salmonella in the early stages? The money is there, it is budgeted, and it could be used now. It is a question of political will and desire, and I would be interested to see whether the Government are prepared to do that. It is no use saying that they do not have the resources ; we know full well that they have.

There is also the question of the reaction to other issues, such as BST in milk. To be fair to farmers, I quote Mrs. Mary James, a delegate at a recent meeting of the NFU, who said :

"All BST will do is line the pockets of the drug companies. The salmonella scare tells us that we cannot afford to take risks where the safety of food is concerned."

What I would say on that issue, if hon. Members want a positive suggestion, is that if we are to have trials with BST, why not label the milk coming from herds of cows injected with BST so consumers themselves can choose whether they want to buy that milk or not? That is certainly not being done by the Government. BST-treated milk simply goes into the milk pool, and people have no idea whether it is in their milk bottles.

There is also the question of BSE, or "spongy brain" as it is commonly called. An inquiry has been set up by the Ministry and the Department of Health under Professor Richard Southwood of Oxford university's zoological department. The Guardian claims that, because Ministers do not like its findings, the report is being held up. It is also alleged that the Treasury has put pressure on proposals for a joint inquiry into salmonella because some of the proposals that might emerge from such an inquiry could prove expensive to implement. That again is a condemnation of a Government who take risks with people's health rather than making available what are, in

Column 914

comparison with the alternative, quite small sums to ensure that health is protected through the research that we need.

The Government have failed in many cases to notify the public or to give enough warnings. There was no excuse for them to withhold, for over a year, the information that listeria in cheese threatened pregnant women. Such information is not scaremongering in the way that Ministers have described. It is balanced, reasonable and rational, but it came too late.

Let me say a brief word about water quality. It is outrageous that the Government have suggested that the standards for effluent and discharge levels for sewage outfalls will be lowered rather than meeting EEC requirements simply to try to make water more attractive to investors and public institutions. The Government's priority should be to ensure that our beaches reach EEC bathing standards, that our rivers do not deteriorate and that our drinking water is of adequate quality. I do not believe that privatising water is the way in which to do that. It simply enhances the risk to the consumer. The underlying failure of the Government lies in their claim that the free market delivers. It certainly does not. We need regulations, planning and strategy, and we are not getting them from the Government.

8.22 pm

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay) : I speak as a housewife. The women in this country buy 90 per cent. of the food, and on their behalf I want to say how disgraceful it is that the Labour party has sought to worry and confuse them by making a political issue out of matters which are nothing of the sort.

Housewives like me are eminently grateful to our excellent food industry for the tremendous variety of foods available--not least cooked chilled foods, which make our lives much easier by cutting down enormously on preparation time. Along with the microwave oven, they have revolutionised the lives of women like me who go out to work but want to provide a variety of interesting foods for our families. To suggest that the cooked chilled food industry is somehow harmful to the population is nonsense.

I am sick and tired of these campaigns. We get one almost every week. Everything that makes life interesting and bearable seems to be wrong for us : the air that we breathe, sex, tobacco, alcohol, sugar, salt, unwashed food, red meat, fast food, eggs, chickens--and now lovely smelly cheese. I would quarrel with the French about many things, but their cheese is delicious, and to suggest that it is bad for people is absurd.

The truth is that germs are everywhere. They are all over our skins--some 2 million on every square centimetre. Every time that we open our mouths to breathe we suck a load of them in. They are a damn sight less dangerous than many politicians--[ Hon. Members-- : "Hear, hear."]-- particularly those on the Opposition Benches.

Furthermore, if we eliminated all those germs, the minute that we stepped out of this country we should all go down with the local version of Delhi Belly, the Aztec Two-Step or Montezuma's Revenge. In fact, a good dose of germs every day builds up natural immunity and is an essential part of human biology. Without it we should all be a good deal worse off.

Column 915

We must keep this problem in perspective. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his excellent expose of the political motives behind all this nonsense. The truth is that there were fewer than 40,000 reported cases of food poisoning in this country last year compared with--this is not my estimate--some 120 billion portions of food eaten in the same period. Such problems from food are less the equivalent of being hit by a meteorite but rather that of finding a particular grain of sand on the beach at Blackpool. The chances are infinitesimal, and although the cases that happen are unfortunate they are not the end of the world.

Of the 50-odd cases of people who, on average, have died from food poisoning in this country over the past five years, almost all have died in public institutions such as hospitals and old people's homes. In the Stanley Royd hospital, 19 people died not because the food was bad but because of the hygienic practices in the hospital. The food had been left standing around for too long.

Most problems are caused not by food itself but by the way in which it is handled, prepared or left standing around. That is the message that we must get across, and not necessarily to housewives. Most cases happen because people nowadays can afford to entertain more, and food is prepared in advance and left standing around. astThe Labour party is looking around for some cause to embrace. It is even harping back to the idea of a Ministry of Food. I heard a Labour party member on the radio the other day actually extolling the virtues of the old days when we had a Ministry of Food and people's diets were controlled by the Government : good old Socialist rhetoric. The Leader of the Opposition has told us that the Labour party would also like another 500 health inspectors, another 500 researchers and more and more jobs in Government Departments for more and more of the boys. That is the motivation behind the campaign, and it is disgraceful that the British public are not being warned. Even more interesting is the source of most of the Labour party's information. Just as the Low Pay Unit stirs up nonsensical campaigns about what it alleges to be three quarters of the British public living on below average wages, Labour relies considerably on the organisation called the London Food Commission, set up by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) with a £1 million grant. Masquerading as a respectable organisation, it publishes almost all its stuff in Left-wing journals, including the journal of the International Marxist Group and other such bodies.

The publications have such names as "Food and Profit : It Makes You Sick". If we did not know their political orientation before, we would when we read stuff like that. They are also behind the campaign to prevent the irradiation of food, which one Opposition Member actually extolled. He will get into hot water for extolling the virtues of a process that the Labour movement is officially opposing.

The organisation has as its declared aims

"to expose the evils in society in which we live and how the health of society is affected by social and economic conditions, particularly in the case of food, its production and its consumption."

That is the motive behind much of the nonsense that is appearing in our newspapers.

Mr. Frank Cook : Will the hon. Lady give way?

Column 916

Mrs. Gorman : No, I will not. I have only 10 minutes, and I am going to fill them up.

One of the campaigns is against fast foods. The organisation has got it in for the hamburger. Its employee--known as Dr. Tim Lobstein--is conducting a campaign against the Big Mac. Another is the cook-chill campaign. This is what it has to say :

"Cook-chill foods result in job losses, change of working hours, reductions in pay and de-skilling."

One of its leading lights, Dr. Tim Lang, is also an adviser to COHSE, which is trying to protect food jobs in the Health Service by alleging that cook- chill food brought in from outside and served to the patients is infected. He makes a scurrilous attempt to discredit the Government's policy of bringing private enterprise into the catering industry. That reveals the motivation of that organisation. It is another Labour party front which is visibly running out of money and trying to drum up support for its campaign. I warn industry against giving any money to that organisation as it is a thoroughly sinister body.

Mr. Frank Cook rose --

Mrs. Gorman : I want to warn the Government, because the editorial of The Food Magazine published by that organisation tells us that after 6,000 letters were sent to the Government complaining about the lack of openness in the food industry, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which ought to know better, has finally "allowed a consumer representative into its party to the world talks in Geneva."

These people are definitely and openly trying to infiltrate those Ministries which influence Government policy, and no doubt the Chief Medical Officer of Health. The Government had better watch out for that organisation because it is definitely not devoted to the policies to which the Government are dedicated.

In my opinion, the whole campaign has been drummed up by the Labour party, which is devoid of campaigns by which to justify its existence. Among other things, the Labour party is calling for a food policy--shades of the Labour movement after the war--and a Food Ministry. It attacks the multinational companies--the great Satan of the Left--which provide most of our major chains with the excellent quality food that they offer the housewife and I have already explained why I think that is a wonderful idea. It has even mounted an attack on cheap food. I am sure that the British housewife will be delighted to know that that is Labour party policy--not that we have a cheap food policy thanks to the CAP which puts £12 a week on the food bill of the average British family. But the Labour party is quite happy to see the price of food rise if it can use that as a means of attacking the private sector, which provides a high-quality, interesting and varied diet.

Now that we know who is behind much of that nonsense, I ask the Government to keep their wits about them and examine what is going on in Ministries to find out whether an infection of Socialist ideas is influencing Government policy and to ensure that they are wiped out and disinfected.

8.32 pm

Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) called Professor Richard Lacey who has done a great deal of work on listeria an eccentric. Although I pointed out that he is doubly qualified as a doctor and a microbiologist, and that he is

Column 917

professor of microbiology at Leeds university and a consultant in microbiology to Leeds Western District health authority, the hon. Lady stuck to her views, which were echoed by other Conservative Members. One of the major results of Professor Lacey's work has been to establish a link between premature births, stillbirths and listeriosis. I suggest that that is far from eccentric. After all their demands for facts, I am interested to see Conservative Members react in that way when they are presented with facts by someone who has become quite interested in his research and is enthusiastic about informing people of its results. I am quite sure that expectant mothers are keen on knowing about the dangers that they may face. We have been told by Conservative Members with the utmost confidence that cooked, chilled food is safe. One Conservative Member said, "You would think that it had been invented only yesterday". But it has not been in use for much longer, as it was introduced only two or three years ago. In that time there has been an explosion in the use of cooked, chilled foods, with massive investment in equipment and products. Listeria is important not because of the proven incidence of listeriosis but because of what the future may hold due to the current investment in cooked, chilled food in the private and public sectors. It is the only form of food preservation being used on a large scale without proper scientific evaluation or having stood the test of time. The issue is not whether we like cooked, chilled food or whether it is nice to have a convenient form of food, but the fact that that particular form of food preservation needs further evaluation and the products need particularly careful handling. It is not simply that the listeria bacterium survives refrigeration--it thrives under refrigeration. There is a very narrow band at which it is safe. I understand that it is stunned at between 0 deg and 3 deg, but that at any temperature above that it multiplies and becomes more pathogenic. In that way it differs from most organisms. Therefore, listeria is very important.

We have received from the Chief Medical Officer of Health and from the Government advice which is hardly precise. We have been told to keep our food really cold. By means of parliamentary questions I am trying to find out how cold is really cold. It is hardly self-explanatory. We have been told that the bacteria, which are very common, are thriving and multiplying because of the extensive practice of keeping food refrigerated for lengthy periods at insufficiently low temperatures. That is a possible reason why the disease is spreading.

It is not hysteria on the part of Labour Members to say that the matter needs to be treated very seriously, not least for the sake of workers in the industries involved as they will carry the can if the investment in cook-chill products proves to be ill-founded and firms get into difficulties through the distortion of trade which results from its expansion without proper evaluation.

Listeria is important and the Government are not providing adequate information. We are told that everything is all right, that analysis is taking place and the public are being informed. However, when we realise that public analysts can analyse only four out of every million items purchased and that total spending on food analysis represents only 5p per person per year, we are entitled to say that that is hardly an extravagant use of resources. It

Column 918

is not even an adequate use of resources for food analysis. We believe not only in adequate regulation, but in the proper resourcing, financing and enforcing of those regulations.

We have heard a great deal from Conservative Members about the housewife. Their motto seems to be, "If in doubt, blame the housewife". I resist that as I do not consider that the blame can be laid at the door of women in Britain. We choose what we buy and what we eat, but over the years our choice has not been increased but has in an important sense been narrowed. In a really profound way it has been narrowed. It is difficult for people to buy food with confidence that it is pesticide residue-free and to feel sure that they know what they are eating. The public want that information. That is why there is such a huge demand for organic food.

Some of the reasons for these deep problems can be found in the way that animals are reared and in the way that food is grown. When "The Food Programme" on Radio 4 investigated the way in which pigs are reared in Britain, it found that 250,000 sows are tethered so closely together that they can barely lie or stand. That is not a healthy way in which to keep animals.

I keep free range chickens. I know about hens. The notion that hens can be healthily kept in tiny cages where they are unable to turn around and that they can be stuffed with antibiotics with impunity is a monstrous distortion of food production. People are resisting more and more the production of food in that way.

The Government's job is to ensure that consumers can find the healthy food that they want. It is also their job to ensure that nobody lives in such poverty as to be unable to afford healthy food. Food is a political issue. Research has shown that it is easier and cheaper to buy healthy food in the better-off areas than in the worst-off areas of Preston. Poor people find it harder and more expensive to gain access to healthy food. That puts food on the political agenda, good and proper.

8.41 pm

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West) : I have a keen interest in the debate. As a cook, I once poisoned 120 people with salmonella. Having listened to what Opposition Members have had to say today, I feel that it is proper to issue a guide as to how to poison people with salmonella. It is quite clear that the Opposition do not know how to go about it. It is a very interesting trick. What one does is to become a hotel cook in a rather run-down hotel where the profits are slender and the free market does not seem to operate. That cannot be in this country. It must be in a country where everything is state owned and nationalised, where there are no profits and where the free market does not operate. One takes from the back of a lorry a job lot of frozen chickens. Because one has come from a farming background, one has never seen peculiar, misshapen, frozen lumps before. One bungs them in the oven and cooks them for the time that one normally allows for cooking a chicken from father's back yard that one has plucked and drawn oneself. Alas, 120 hot air balloonists from all over the world were fed by me with salmonella, which meant that they were unable to rise in their hot air balloons for the best part of a week.

Since those days, I have taken the keenest possible interest in food. I have watched closely the inaccuracies

Column 919

that have been put forward by Her Majesty's Opposition and--dare I say it?--by those dreadful people the media. What about the headline, "Eggs poison boy"? That led to the sad death of nine- year-old Zamire Hussain. A week later it was agreed by the medical authorities that no trace of salmonella--egg induced--had been found in that lad's body, but there was no apology in the media for that inaccuracy. The Sunday before last the health correspondent in one of the Sunday "heavies" spurned the coming Government leaflet on food and said :

"We won't have the Government telling us to wash our hands." The correspondent said that virtually all food poisoning comes from cross- contamination or from food storage and handling. Before I am accused of being on the side of the farmer, I should point out that, at a meeting of my farm council about 10 days ago, 350 farmers referred to their keen interest in the consumer. My constituency depends on food. We produce, process, transport and ship it. We sell it to the consumer who eats it. The consumer is the whole purpose of the exercise.

When we consider hygiene and why food poisoning is on the increase, it is worth remembering that 7 billion meals were cooked and consumed outside the home last year. I suffered from food poisoning last year on the way to Stoneleigh. On the way to the agricultural show we stopped at a cafeteria early in the morning. Somebody in the cafeteria was wiping his nose, another person had grubby hands and somebody else had grubby hair. We should have walked away, but it was early and we were hungry. By midday at Stoneleigh we felt extremely ill.

Of the 2,000 or more strains of salmonella, very few are injurious to human or animal health. One must match containment at source, which is a most crucial element, with improvements in food handling. Most egg infections have arisen from the multiple handling of eggs. As for salmonella enteretidis, phage type 4, it is good news that the discovery has been made that it is contamination not from the ovi-duct but from the gut. That is a much more regular form of cross-infection from a chicken and it is something that will be easier to contain. All the evidence points to that conclusion, and it is genuinely good news. I know that the House revels in scare stories, but let us occasionally be glad to hear good news.

It is the utmost ill-fortune that the United Kingdom is suffering from phage type 4, either by mutation or because it has come from Spain. It is a close cousin of two salmonellas that have been virtually eradicated in the United States. I do not believe that all is lost. I am confident that it will be contained by the excellent and speedy measures that have already been taken by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The key is to maintain good food hygiene. With phage type 4, one starts with the broiler breeder ; it should be eliminated from the food chain.

Contrary to views that have been expressed this evening, it is important to remember that if salmonella is present in an egg, a small number of the bacteria can multiply to levels that cause illness. If, for example, we leave eggs outside either the refrigerator or a cold room and if they are then broken open in a warm temperature and fed to people who are sick and who can therefore tolerate only a much lower level of salmonella concentration, they may become ill. Conversely, one can identify eggs with only a small number of salmonella

Column 920

which, if properly handled, are perfectly tolerable, even by somebody who is in poor health. If we look hard enough, we can find salmonella in all the food that we eat. It is the way that food is handled that is critical. For example, if we make a salad in a bowl in which we have stored raw meat and the bowl has not been disinfected properly, our families may suffer stomach upsets. Families' shopping habits have changed. They shop once a week. People have small refrigerators in small flats and kitchens without larders. The Government must try much harder to educate and help the housewife as well as to enforce proper regulations, as they are already doing, in the case of those who mass produce food. The sterilisation of eggs does not help. They need an effective temperature of 56 deg C and eggs have to be cooked at that temperature for 15 to 20 minutes. That will eliminate the salmonella, but it kills our appetite, too.

It has been said in the debate that the withdrawal of funding from near- market research has led to cuts in research into salmonella or scrapie. I want to put that right. The funding of one particular project on the competitive exclusion of salmonella, which had been in progress for more than a decade at the Institute of Food Research, has been terminated because, after comprehensive review, it was decided that it had reached a successful conclusion. However, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is continuing to fund other research on salmonella at the IFR. There is also funding of research into scrapie. The requirement for research into BSE is currently under review. Scrapie research is being carried out at the nemopathogenesis unit, which is jointly funded by the Agricultural and Food Research Council and the Medical Research Council. MAFF is collaborating with the NPU and is already funding work on BSE. That is a most important point.

I should be appalled if the Government followed the Opposition line and banned the sale of green top milk. Consumers increasingly prefer food which has the least processing--that is the move towards more natural foods--but there are dangers inherent in this. Listeria from raw milk is an extremely rare possibility. Regular drinkers have developed an immunity, and occasional drinkers should be given warnings, particularly if they are sick or pregnant. Is it the Government's line, if we are to ban raw milk, to ban cigarettes and tobacco because of the known causal link between self- induced lung cancer and smoking? If we are not to follow that line--and I know that we shall not--it would be wholly wrong to ban fresh raw milk. I was brought up on it, and I am exceptionally fit. The majority of listeria- contaminated soft cheeses are made from pasteurised milk which has been reinfected during subsequent manufacture. This bug is adept at living at a wide range of temperatures. Bacteriological analysis applied to dairy products is the key to ensuring safe consumer choice. This will protect the consumer and the manufacturer.

I will give an example of the least need to be frightened of food poisoning from cheese. Gidleigh park, one of the major hotels in my constituency and a five-star establishment, has served 75,000 meals since it opened, and 90 per cent. of the clients have cheese, almost all of it made from non- pasteurised milk and over half of that being soft or semi-soft cheese. That hotel has not had any cases of food poisoning.

The withdrawal of additives--the E number fuss--which means that food has a shorter life, has in many ways

Column 921

been reflected in the rise in the incidence of food poisonings as food decays sooner. Undertakers will be sorry to hear this. I am referring, of course, not to sewage or water undertakers but to those who are concerned with human carcases. They used to say that, with all the preservatives we ate, we spent two weeks longer on the slab. The keynote issue is consumer choice--giving consumers complete information, regular knowledge and public education--following the ministerial line rather than the Opposition line in wishing to take away from consumers that to which they have a right, the choice to buy and consume what they wish. After all, if the market does not work, will the Opposition seek to nationalise farming?

8.52 pm

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North) : I must be brief because I have less than five minutes in which to speak.

I agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) in the united approach that north of Scotland hon. Members have adopted in trying to restore the funding of the Torry research institute which deals with fish and which has had 25 per cent. of its research budget cut. It cannot make that up in near market research and I hope that the Minister will meet us to discuss the issue before the matter becomes final.

I have been deeply disturbed by the way in which some Conservative Members- -including the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland), who I see leaving the Chamber--have behaved in this debate. I am glad to see that that hon. Gentleman has decided to remain to listen to me. There has not been the slightest contribution about the fact that there is food poisoning from primary food sources, no hint of shame and no whiff of apology for the fact that food is contaminated at source. There has been only screaming that housewives are to blame because they are not handling food properly. I have also found the attitude of the farming industry reprehensible ; it is simply screaming about its compensation.

There is an old adage about prevention being better than cure. Clearly it would be better if bacteria and other organisms did not get into food. I have some knowledge of these matters, having been the convener of the health and welfare committee in Aberdeen at the time of the major typhoid outbreak. I am therefore aware of how bacteria works its way through the food chain. I also appreciate the way in which the farming industry sometimes feels under threat, when it believes that it is not the only responsible party--that the processors, distributors, manufacturers and handlers all have a degree of responsibility, as have the restaurants and everyone else in terms of trying to avoid food poisoning.

Everyone must bear a responsibility, and the Department of Health should take a lead and push more strongly for the irradiation of food. That technique kills 99.99 per cent. of the pathogens that are dangerous to human beings. This health matter should be pursued. We accept modern technology in terms of cook-chill, refrigeration, microwaves and so on. The fact that food is refrigerated, for example, means that it lasts longer and that the organisms get a chance to develop.

Column 922

In the old days, when we had no refrigerators, the food went off, it stank like hell and it was thrown out. I should add that irradiation does not help with eggs because they pong if they are irradiated. Nor does it affect fatty foods. But the possibilities are such that we should pursue these issues with greater vigour. We must increase the number of environmental health officers. Only by that means shall we be able to do more checking. It is high time, considering the dangers facing the public, that we brought into the food industry the concept of product liability in the way in which it exists for other manufactured goods. If one sells a dangerous iron or television and somebody is killed, one is responsible. It should be a badge of honour for the food industry to boast that its food is contamination free, that it has done everything possible to protect the public. If that is not done, it should have a responsibility, by way of criminal prosecution and compensation.

This has been a valuable debate. I regret that it has been devalued by those who spoke, in a totally uncritical way, on behalf of the food industry and who were not willing to accept that faults exist in that industry. Nevertheless, it has been a valuable debate and I hope it will not be long before we return to those matters.

The degree of interest in the subject has meant that, whereas most hon. Members thought there would be ample time in which to speak, that has proved not to be the case. There are many other issues on which I would have liked to have spoken. I was told that, had I done so, I would have probably got myself into hot water, so I will resume my seat and face the consequences.

8.56 pm

Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn) : In the few minutes available to me, I will comment on only one issue raised by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes), and that is water, although I wish to speak about cold rather than hot water. The debate is about the safety of food and water, though most contributors have, perhaps understandably, concentrated on food.

The British Government signed the EEC drinking water directive in 1985. Even by that time, many treatment works were up to standard. Since then, a further 300 have been brought up to standard, and by next year a further 90 will have joined that number. By the mid-1990s, 150 of the 170 remaining will be brought up to standard, though many of them are covered by derogations under article 9 of the directive because the lower standards in those areas do not cause any health risk. Indeed, the lower standards are due largely to geological problems making water purification difficult. So by the mid-1990s nearly all of Britain's water will meet or better the EEC drinking water directive.

We on the Government Benches must concede the Opposition's point that this could have happened earlier. But it did not happen earlier because in 1976 capital expenditure by the water authorities was cut by a third by the then Labour Government. Labour Members must therefore accept responsibility for the fact that it is taking us till the mid-1990s to get our water treatment works up to standard. They cannot blame the present Government for the delay.

The Conservative Government have increased capital expenditure on water treatment works by 50 per cent. in real terms. In 1976-77, Welsh water authority capital

Column 923

expenditure was £32.9 million but by 1987-88 it had risen to £67.8 million. Incidentally, I am glad to see the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) in his place as I shall refer to him later. Expenditure on water infrastructure has greatly increased under the present Government, compensating for gross neglect by the Labour Government.

The Water Bill is the key to attaining higher standards for Britain's water. For the first time, the European water directive's provisions will be given the full force of law. It will also free the new water plcs from external financing limits, enabling them to borrow money for capital works as they require it, and so to accelerate their capital programmes. They will no longer have to queue behind schools or hospitals. Should the nightmare occur--difficult though it is to fantasise--of Labour ever returning to power, the plcs will not face the prospect of that Labour Government slashing capital expenditure on water and sewage treatment works as they did in the mid-1970s.

The Water Bill will also establish a tough, regulatory framework. For the first time, it will be a statutory offence to supply water that is unfit for human consumption. The National Rivers Authority will play a valuable role. I recall that in 1985, in the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, many Opposition and Conservative Members, when considering coastal sewage pollution, made the point that it was ridiculous for water authorities to be both poacher and gamekeeper. The NRA will bring an end to that position. It will now monitor and enforce quality objectives. A drinking water inspectorate will ensure, for the first time, that suppliers monitor water quality and comply with standards. That has not occurred before, assessment being left to the water authorities. The plcs will also be required to give detailed information about water quality to the public. For the first time, there will be exact, numerical standards for drinking water quality set down in United Kingdom law, approved by Parliament. All that is due to privatisation.

I am glad that some Labour Members have admitted, no doubt unintentionally, that high water standards can be achieved by a private water company. I refer to a report in the Wrexham Water News of November 1988 :

"Three Clwyd MPs have praised Wrexham Water Company for the work it does in maintaining the quality and safety of water supplies to its consumers."

There follow quotes from the three Labour Members concerned. The hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West, who is himself a microbiologist, and on whose opinion we can therefore surely rely, commented : "I have been a resident of Wrexham all my life and have always found the water to be of good quality and very dependable." The shadow Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones), stated :

"I was very pleased to be given every assurance that the company's top priority is to deliver safe and wholesome water to every household it serves. I rate this aspect of the water industry of enduring priority."

And the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) commented : "It is reassuring to see the dedication of the staff and the work they do to maintain a safe supply of water."

The hon. Gentleman was reported as saying that he had been impressed with everything he had seen.

Those are the comments of three Labour Members. They show that, behind the scenes, when they visit a

Column 924

private water company, they acknowledge that water supplies can be kept perfectly safe. Under privatisation, the consumer has nothing to fear.

9.2 pm

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield) : Having sat in the Chamber for five hours, it is a matter of concern to me that my contribution is limited to five minutes, but I shall try to make one or two serious points about issues that concern me.

It has been interesting listening to a variety of speeches. Tonight, I learnt why my wife plays merry hell with me if I purchase food from supermarkets that is past its sell-by date. She realises that if I consume such food, my brain will end up in the same state as that of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). I have never before heard remarks of the kind that she came out with tonight. To say, as she did, that a good dose of germs each day is good for one sums up the Government's policies on food hygiene.

The present Government have presided over a threefold increase in food poisoning. Their record is one of incredible complacency. Giving due justice to parliamentary answers I have received on the cook-chill issue, there are contrived cover-ups time and time again, with the Government refusing to divulge information that I know is available. As my hon. Friends have said, at the heart of the problem is that which is at the heart of so many other problems existing under the present Government : vastly increased profits are sought at the expense of wider considerations of safety and care of the environment.

Alongside that political question there are deep moral issues. My hon. Friends have mentioned animal welfare, although that has not been taken up by any Conservative Member. In factory farming we see maximum output with minimum input. There is a complete disregard for animal welfare in many aspects of their treatment in factory farms. Animal transport is a matter for deep concern. Animals are crammed into lorries and poultry into cages to be carried about and that is a disgrace.

Those conditions create stress, which in turn creates infection, often just before animals are slaughtered. Mass slaughter itself is new. Poultry are often slaughtered in flocks of 10,000 at a time. Abbatoirs have a huge through-put, carried out at such speed that cross-infection is a frequent occurrence.

The huge increase in food poisoning is clearly linked to the way in which we have moved towards mass food production. It is as though nature is telling us that we are getting it wrong ; that the food poisoning is a sign that what we are doing to the animal kingdom is wrong. We should address that issue as a nation.

Alongside the mass production of food we have seen the development of mass catering techniques such as cook-chill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) said. I wanted to spend a good deal of my speech looking at what is happening in the Yorkshire region where cook-chill methods are coming into our hospitals as part of the privatisation of NHS catering services. The extent of the problems that arise from cook-chill methods is not known. Conservative Members say that we have no figures, but the Government do not ask the questions in order to obtain them.

Within the past 18 months in the Leeds area there have been six known deaths from listeriosis--three babies and three elderly people. Those deaths have been proven to be

Column 925

the result of listeriosis related to food consumption. That fact comes from Professor Richard Lacey, who has been abused several times today by a number of Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) left the Chamber a long time ago, no doubt to go for dinner. I wish that she would address her comments on Professor Lacey to the lady in Horsforth who lost her baby through consuming food purchased from a supermarket. The complacency that I have heard tonight from Conservative Members is incredible. If the six deaths in Leeds reflected the situation nationally--there is no reason to believe that they do not--that would mean 400 deaths per annum from listeriosis. That is a disgrace.

I have had a bad day. I have sat here for five hours and have only five minutes at the end of the debate. I also sat through health questions today. My question was No. 15 but we reached only No. 12. I asked the Secretary of State for Health :

"what proportion of perinatal deaths, still births and miscarriages which have occurred over the past year have been examined for the presence of listeria monocytogenes."

The answer was :

"Post-mortem examinations of still births or perinatal deaths to establish the presence of listeria monocytogenes would only be carried out at the request of clinical staff or a coroner, and we do not hold information on these requests centrally."

That is why we know nothing about listeria. The figures are not asked for. The Government are covering up the reality of what is going on.

It is a disgrace that I am limited to this small amount of time at this stage in the debate. My constituents are faced with the introduction within the next few weeks of cook-chill methods in their hospital. They cannot opt out of that. They do not have the great consumer choice about which the Government talk. They will have that method whether they like it or not. The people of Wakefield are frightened by what is facing them.

9.8 pm

Next Section

  Home Page