|Previous Section||Home Page|
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give local authorities the power to impose on-the-spot fines for litter offences and to make retail outlets and other premises responsible for the cleanliness of the public footpaths outside their premises ; and for connected purposes.
The background to the national problem of litter is well known and widely debated. It is a self-inflicted problem caused by a minority of thoughtless, selfish litter louts who cause a great deal of damage to the environment in which we live and to the quality of life. Sadly, this country is fast becoming the dustbin of Europe and the image that we present to visitors and tourists should fill us all with shame.
The problem can be put in perspective by realising that enough paper and card is thrown away each year to afforest an area the size of Wales. Incidentally, politicians who are concerned for the environment should remember, particularly at election time, that we add to the weight of litter with a plethora of election literature. I trust that Members of the SLD in particular will bear that in mind in 1991-92.
Local authorities, public-spirited individuals and central Government are trying to tackle the issue, but their efforts are hampered by the sheer scale of the problem. For example, Chelmsford borough council has an excellent ad hoc "Cleaner Chelmsford Committee" which, under the leadership of the mayor, Councillor Philip Firth does an excellent job, but its efforts are not so well rewarded as they should be because of the lack of effective legislation to back up what is done with meaningful penalties and deterrents against litter louts. Despite all its good intentions, the Litter Act 1983 is fast becoming a national joke. Between 1984 and 1988, 5,901 people were found guilty of offences under the Act, but the number of people successfuly prosecuted represents but a tiny proportion of the problem throughout the nation. Furthermore, no deterrents have been built up because the average fine imposed by the courts was a mere £32 compared with a statutory maximum of £400. In short, litter louts realise that the overwhelming majority of them can offend with impunity. The chance of getting caught is minuscule and even if they are caught the punishment is paltry.
My Bill is designed to launch an effective attack on litter louts and to show them that society means business in controlling them and reducing the problem. To that end, my Bill has three aims. The first is to extend to all local authorities the power that Westminster city council took for itself last year in a private Bill to enable specially designated local authority employees to impose on-the-spot litter fines on people caught offending. At present, every local authority watching the Westminster experience and wishing to have that power in its own area will have to go through the procedure of launching a private Bill to seek the power. Sweeping away that problem and giving every local authority that power is therefore the first aim of my Bill.
Designated officials of councils--Westminster has between 50 and 60--will then have power, on seeing people throwing down litter in the streets or on the roads, to request them to pick it up and put it in a refuse bin or take it home with them. Should they refuse, they will get a fixed penalty ticket, similar to a parking ticket. They will have 14 days in which to pay the fine, with the option of
Column 770going to the magistrates' court to plead the case and show why they should not have to pay the fine. In the first six months of the Westminster scheme, up to December last year, 590 people were apprehended. Of that number, all but three picked up their litter and put it in a rubbish bin. One person is being prosecuted. It is difficult to proceed against the two others because one lives in Hong Kong and the other gave a wrong address.
The second purpose of my Bill is to adopt a scheme that is common on the continent. Shops, fast food outlets and banks--particularly banks with cash dispensing machines--would be responsible for their shop fronts and the pavements in front of their premises. At present, one has only to visit any area of any town in Britain late at night, particularly near fast food outlets, to see the mess and wanton disregard for the environment. Fish and chip bags, fast food plastic packages and so forth are discarded for the local authority to clear away. The shopkeeper as well as the individual should have a moral responsibility to ensure that our cities, towns and villages are kept clean. That is why my Bill would impose a duty on the keepers of such premises to keep their fronts clear of litter.
Thirdly, my Bill would encourage--I say no more than "encourage" because it would be difficult in law to do more--manufacturers to bring back the disposable deposit scheme that was popular up to 20 or 30 years ago. That would be reintroduced on bottles and cans so that when people brought bottles of lemonade or whatever, they would have an incentive to return the containers to the point of sale and to obtain a refund. There would also be an incentive for youngsters to add to their pocket money by picking up that sort of rubbish and returning it to shops, thus cleaning up behind those who do not bother to get the refund and continue to discard bottles and cans. That would enhance our recycling programmes because more cans, bottles and glass would be collected.
Those are the three key points of my Bill, which would set an example for the way forward and give local authorities the power to build up deterrents against litter louts, who would no longer discard their rubbish with impunity. Areas would soon gain a reputation for being tough with litter louts. By that means we would enhance the centres of our cities, towns and villages and improve the quality of life generally.
I ask Members in all parts of the House to support my Bill. If through lack of parliamentary time, as only six or seven months of the Session remain, all stages in both Houses cannot be completed. I urge the Government to take careful note of my Bill and what is said by its supporters--the public in general, local authorities and people with a special interest in improving the environment--and to introduce a Bill of their own. That would increase the reputation that the Government are justifiably establishing for being concerned with the environment. It would show that they are not merely whingeing about the problem but are actively doing something to solve it and thereby providing a better future for our children.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Simon Burns, Mr. Andrew Mitchell, Mrs. Gillian Shephard, Mrs. Rosie Barnes, Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Mr. Jerry Hayes, Mr. David Nicholson, Mr. Timothy Kirkhope, Mr. Alan Amos, Mr. David Wilshire and Mrs. Teresa Gorman.
Mr. Simon Burns accordingly presented a Bill to give local authorities the power to impose on-the-spot fines for litter offences and to make retail outlets and other premises responsible for the cleanliness of the public footpaths outside their premises ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 12 May and to be printed. [Bill 92.]
[Relevant document : The First Report from the Agriculture Committee of Session 1988-89 on salmonella in eggs (House of Commons Paper No. 108- I).]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That a supplementary sum, not exceeding £1,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to defray the charges which will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1989 for expenditure by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on market support, grants and loans for capital and other improvements, support for agriculture in special areas and compensation to sheep producers, animal health, arterial drainage, flood and coast protection, and certain other services.-- [Mr. Sackville.]
Mr. Speaker : I remind the House that today's debate on class IV, vote 3 of the Estimates is limited to the subject of assistance to the egg industry, in accordance with the recommendation of the Liaison Committee, whose report was agreed to by the House on 28 February.
Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare) : It is a rare privilege for the Chairman of a Select Committee to be able to introduce a report for debate on the Floor of the House ; to be able to do so within a week of its publication must be almost unique. I fully appreciate that this subject has received more than its fair share of attention in recent weeks, for reasons that the House well understands, and not unrelated to the fact that in the course of the last three weeks at least one Supply day has been devoted to similar issues. Nevertheless, by the nature of things, the press can, and does give only a modest amount of space to our findings.
I hope that those who have read the report in full will appreciate the comprehensive way in which we have sought to cover this limited subject. We have deliberately confined our study to salmonella in eggs, even though many witnesses sought to divert us to the wider territory not only of salmonella in poultry generally but of the whole question of food safety.
Because of the nature of the emergency, the widespread concern expressed in the media, and the catastrophic effect on the industry, we felt that it was extremely urgent to produce our report, together with the evidence that went towards it, as soon as possible. We claim no records, but I doubt whether many Select Committee reports of the substance of this one have been produced in such a short time. Indeed, had it not been for the delay occasioned by the illness of a key witness, we might have been able to report even earlier. We had to invite evidence from all interested parties and leave them a reasonable reply period, which, incidentally, overran the Christmas holiday.
With a number of members of the Committee serving on Standing Committees, and some representing constituencies in regions as far away as Northern Ireland and Scotland, it was really practical for us to meet only on Wednesdays. Although this allows proper consideration of
Column 773the written evidence in preparation for oral sessions, it may seem from the outside somewhat dilatory. Nevertheless, once we had completed our oral sessions we were able to consider the draft report in the course of the next two weeks, and we finally published on 1 March, only one day behind our original estimate of the end of February.
I must pay tribute to the Clerk, Mr. David Robson, and his staff in the Select Committee office--actually, only two assistants and one hard-pressed secretary--who have to deal not only with the study in hand but with the other peripheral business, which is quite extensive.
Conscious of the fact that in this whole matter there was a considerable element of scientific evidence, we appointed as our special advisers Dr. Michael Whitehead, formerly head of the public health laboratory service, and Mr. Don Haxby, a former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. We could not have asked for, or received, greater help than we were given by those two gentlemen. I am delighted to learn that Dr. Whitehead will be advising another Select Committee in the near future-- with a glowing reference from ourselves.
Naturally, I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food cannot be with us today, but I fully understand the extreme importance of his presence in Brussels, where he is negotiating the price review. Sad as his absence from this House may be, I have to say that in the national interest his presence there is probably more important. I am certain that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who occupies a most important position in the Government, will be an excellent substitute. I know that his day-to-day work on this matter has been extensive, and we could not ask for better guidance from the Front Bench.
I appreciate that the Government will wish, at a future time, to respond in full detail to our conclusions and recommendations. However, I hope that the Minister, when he intervenes, will be able to give a clear indication of the Government's initial reaction to our report, particularly as many of our recommendations are already in train. Indeed, the Ministry of Agriculture has been claiming that no fewer than 17 measures have been introduced to help to remedy this difficult problem. While it is quite clear that many of those were in preparation before 3 December, the Ministry, too, must have been listening to the evidence that we received, and to the tone of our questions, to have responded in such an across-the- board manner and so promptly. I hope also that the Government will see the time scale for their response as being rather shorter than the normal three months, in view of the widespread public concern about this matter, as well as the very special efforts that my Committee has made to produce its report as soon as possible.
Predictably enough, the press has described the report in various ways, but most of the newspapers have concentrated on those to whom we ascribe blame. I hope that those who have read the report in its entirety will recognise that it is much more balanced than that. Generally, it acknowledges that the Government are on the right track in the way in which they are trying to control salmonella, but it has to be said that some of the measures have been taken too slowly--a criticism that we have set out in detail.
Column 774If our report has put the Government under the spotlight, I believe that today's debate puts Select Committees as a whole very much in the same glare. It is obvious, to me at least, that the public, and even journalists, who should know better, are still not clear as to how Select Committees should operate and what resources and information are open to them.
As I see it, it is our role to monitor past decisions of the Government, particularly those involving public money. This is a natural extension of the right of the House in relation to the Government of the day. There are some, of course, who see us in the same light as Select Committees of the United States Congress. Those people fail to observe the very substantial difference, which is simply that Ministers in the United States Administration are not members of the elected Houses and cannot answer questions there. The American Select Committees, therefore, provide a connection and an arm of Government that are neither necessary not desirable in this country.
One journalist, who commented that we as a Select Committee should have been better informed about this affair during last summer, fails to recognise that at no time does a Select Committee have privileged access to Government decisions or papers or to ministerial decisions--nor do I believe that it should. We are a post-mortem body, the pathologists of Parliament, if I may put it that way. It is up to us to judge what has taken place in the past and to cast our judgment where we will. On top of that, it is not unreasonable to say that, having made a criticism, it is only right and positive to make suggestions as to what should be done by way of correction. I hope that the House will find that in our report we have tried to adopt that principle.
This is a classic case of a Minister sparking off an incident encompassing not only the mass media but a large and important industry, as well as touching that most sensitive nerve--the health of the general public. The Government sought to respond, yet even the most partisan observer must acknowledge that the matter had reached a stage of substantial national interest in a very short time. Government money of a potentially serious order was involved ; two Government Departments had direct responsibility ; the egg producers and the food industry were thoroughly alarmed ; and individual members of the public were left bemused, confused, and frightened. The matter was directly the responsibility of the Agriculture Select Committee, and the announcement that we proposed to investigate the matter was greeted with considerable relief by all the interested parties-- anyhow, those outside the Government--who recognised that we provided a forum in which the matter could be considered reasonably, with all the information available.
I do not pretend that our report is definitive. No doubt there are questions that we failed to ask, and answers that we misinterpreted. However, the report was the product of a careful examination of the issues in which party politics played little or no part. Commentators are sometimes surprised that committees of politicians with very different views can reach unanimous conclusions. I do not share this scepticism. In the case of this Select Committee, and this report, the conclusions are based on the evidence. The more evidence we heard, the more certain we became of some of our conclusions. We received a comprehensive and widespread selection of written evidence, and further questioned a number of key witnesses.
Column 775Until now, unofficial comments from the Government have been somewhat limited, although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has said that he intends to take parts of the report seriously. It is interesting to observe the reactions of interested parties, all of whom, so far, have concluded that it is an excellent report, except the part that criticises them. I must repeat that the whole report was considered with the greatest care by the Committee and its final version was unanimously accepted.
I have been concerned by the innuendo that there should be some bias in the report, simply because there happens to be a majority of one Conservative in the composition of the Committee. My hon. Friends and I are not noted for our hostility to the Government--quite the reverse--so I ask Ministers, even if they are not in agreement with our findings, to acknowledge the integrity of the evidence-gathering and evidence-sifting that we have been through.
In that context, I noted the remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who described our reaction to his part in the matter as "ridiculous". Anyone who has been in active politics for any time occasionally gets it wrong or is misquoted in the press. We all know the immense difficulty that retraction or correction presents and, even with the wisdom of hindsight, I acknowledge the problem. What is clear, however, is that the reaction of the Government at the time did not produce the desired result. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will ponder that section of the report as carefully as any other. Interested as the press may be in the safety or otherwise of eggs, we all have no illusions as to why our investigation attracted such intense attention from the press. It was a matter of great relief to me when my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) agreed to attend a hearing of the Committee. Whether the public believes our report or not, we would have seriously lacked credibility if we had not been able to question her in person. While she maintained that there was little that she could add to the total sum of our knowledge--and her evidence did little to dispel that--she certainly corroborated our impression of events leading from her statement on 3 December, and for that alone her presence was merited.
Many hon. Members took the view at the time that there was a substantial constitutional point at stake. If an hon. Member who had herself been a member of a Select Committee in the past, and a former member of a Government committed to assisting Select Committees, were to refuse to appear before us, how much harder would it be for Select Committees which wished to compel reluctant strangers to attend. The House absolutely insists on its right to question Ministers, and I do not believe it would be well understood by anyone inside or outside the House if former Ministers were to rely on some claim of privilege that precluded them from examination, particularly when the matters concerned referred to their time as office holders. However, there is no sanction on anyone who refuses to answer questions, although the Committee is entitled to draw its own conclusion from such reluctance.
Column 776I recall describing the experience of resigning from office as being "extremely hurtful". I am sure that my hon. Friend has suffered considerably. I am personally grateful to her for avoiding a constitutional dilemma for the House, and for her kind words to me personally, which I appreciated.
Now that the Committee has produced its report, which I hope deals with the important issues involved in the affair, I would not seek to bore the House by going over it again paragraph by paragraph. Nevertheless, it is certain that the newspapers' obsession with criticism obscured the far more important issues of establishing an answer to some of the questions that were being asked. Therefore, by way of a summary, we set out what we believed were the six most important questions and our answers to them, extracted from the main body of the report.
Clearly, the point to which we wish to give most emphasis concerns the safety of eggs. It was our very firm conclusion that normally healthy people should feel no cause for concern. I will read to the House the answer to our question, "How safe are eggs?" We said : "The risks to individual consumers cannot be quantified exactly, but given that the likelihood of an egg being infected with salmonella is very small, and the likelihood of the infection not being destroyed by cooking is even smaller, normally healthy people should feel no cause for concern. Those who consume uncooked eggs or uncooked egg dishes should be aware that these carry a slight risk. Care should be taken to cook eggs thoroughly for vulnerable groups, in line with the Chief Medical Officer's advice."
I hope that that will give comfort to the many millions who every day eat eggs and who look upon them as a cheap, reasonable and safe food, and will also put the market back where it belongs in due course.
I should like to say a word about the role which some television programmes played. Ever ready to pour petrol on the flames, they sought and found two individuals who were ready to spread alarm and despondency with selected facts and figures. The opportunity that was presented to Dr. Lang, a social psychologist who runs the London Food Commission, was not lost on him. Television could scarcely complete a programme on the subject without his gloomy tidings and instructions on hygiene. His business is propaganda. If I say that his organisation was originally funded by the Greater London council when it was led by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), I do not think I need say more.
Professor Lacey, whose credentials as professor of microbiology at Leeds university are substantially more relevant, was able with almost theatrical statements to use his position and knowledge to considerable effect, again owing to the endless exposure which his woeful tale obtained, particularly on television. It would be too much to expect that any balanced view should be broadcast, but I wonder how widespread the distress caused by these two gentlemen must have been among the less well informed members of the public, to say nothing of the many thousands of egg producers and others who lost substantial sums of money as a result of the crisis.
The news that bits of dead chicken were being fed to chickens drew pictures of appalling cannibalism that clearly revolved everyone. We examined the matter in detail and found that no less than 1.25 million tonnes of animal products every year are ground, boiled, dried and processed to provide a highly nutritious form of animal protein, very little of which is used in laying rations. While it is true that it can be infected with salmonella, there is no
Column 777evidence that that was the cause of any outbreaks, nor indeed would any ordinary person be particularly repelled by the substance, which is simply a brown coloured powder, except possibly by its rather rich smell.
I hope to be able to claim that my Committee has enhanced the reputation of Select Committees, has produced a balanced report which contains positive suggestions for improvement that will be informative to the House and the general public, and will uphold the principle that the House will be vigilant and, if necessary, critical of the Government in the interests of the welfare of all the people. 4.37 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder) : As my hon. Friend the Membefor Weston- super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) has already said, my right hon. Friend the Minister is in Brussels taking part in crucial negotiations and has asked me to apologise for his absence from the debate. I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend's balanced speech and I express personal admiration for the clear, fluent style used by the authors of his Committee's report. We should also recognise that the Committee worked against deadlines with great speed.
I stress that my speech today is not the Government's official response to the Select Committee report. That will come soon, once we have absorbed the report's interpretation of events and completed our analysis of those recommendations not already executed or known publicly to be in the pipeline. The 17 measures which the Government have already announced to tackle salmonella cover many of the Committee's recommendations. Indeed, as my hon. Friend knows, 15 of the 17 measures had been decided on and disclosed to the Committee before its hearings began.
Soon after my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare decided to inquire into the new and growing problem of salmonella in eggs, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food submitted a joint memorandum to his Committee. That was, and remains, a key document because it sets out at length and in detail the international nature and prevalence of salmonella enteritidis phage type 4 and the action being taken by the British Government to combat it. Paragraph 16 of the submission says :
"There is no other zoonosis as complex in its epidemiology and control as salmonellosis. Epidemiological patterns differ greatly between geographical areas depending on climate, population density, land use, farming practices, food harvesting and processing technologies, and consumer habits. Moreover, the biology of salmonella serovars differs so widely that discussions on salmonellosis, salmonella infections or salmonella contamination are inevitably complex."
Those words were not written by a Minister or Government official--they were plucked as a direct quotation from the World Health Organisation's 1988 expert committee report. So if anyone here or outside still contends that this complex issue can be tackled by sloganising or simple solutions based on magic potions they should cast aside their misleading thoughts and concentrate on the facts so starkly highlighted by the World Health Organisation.
Definitive identification of affected flocks can be achieved only by isolation of the organisms in laboratories. There is no rapid, simple blood test anywhere in the world to identify live birds with salmonella
Column 778enteritidis phage type 4. Consequently, there can be no guarantees that a flock is free from salmonella. Salmonella organisms are present and persistent all around us in the environment and there is no sound method of eliminating them from laying houses. The Government's chief veterinary officer has always argued that even a wholesale slaughter policy, followed by thorough cleansing and disinfecting of sheds, would not guarantee that subsequent flocks would be salmonella free. The Select Committee acknowledged in paragraph 30 that
"experts agree that salmonellas are impossible to eradicate altogether. They are ubiquitous organisms : reservoirs of infection exist in all birds and animals, and in humans."
Mr. Martyn Jones (Clywd, South-West) : What the Minister is saying is, of course, true for all salmonella species, but it must surely be possible to eliminate one particular type--for example, salmonella enteritidis phage type 4, which was the one that the Committee mainly considered--as, indeed, salmonella gallinorum and pullorum have been eliminated from flocks because they are pathogenic to chickens.
Mr. Ryder : I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman's scientific knowledge and background, but no country has found the answer to that form of salmonella. If such an answer existed, clearly it would be deployed. There have been ways of detecting other forms of salmonella, but not enteritidis phage type 4. As soon as an answer is found anywhere in the world, the hon. Gentleman can be certain that the British Government will be the first to deploy it in chicken houses.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) : Following my hon. Friend's response to the intervention of the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), does he agree that other salmonellae are also capable of causing food poisoning in humans? Even if we eliminate enteritidis phage type 4--as we hope in due course to do--we shall still need the general vigilance and the precautions set out in our report to reduce to a minimum the risk of food poisoning.
Mr. Ryder : My hon. Friend is right. There are nearly 2,000 different forms of salmonella. Indeed, salmonella typhimurium--the form of salmonella which affected the House of Lords last year--is in many ways even more serious than salmonella enteritidis phage type 4. Moreover, far from being unique to Britain, reservoirs also exist in countries such as the United States, France, Eire, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, and some reported cases of salmonella in Britain have been from people laid low immediately after returning from business or holiday trips abroad.
As soon as the Government received confirmation last summer from doctors, scientists and vets of a serious problem linking food poisoning in humans and salmonella enteritidis phage type 4 in eggs, action was taken. An immediate and intensive review was carried out by doctors, scientists and vets. Joint meetings were held between the Department of Health, the public health laboratory service, the Ministry and representatives of the egg industry. The joint working party on salmonella and eggs drew up a report on specific areas where research was required. That report was made available to the House in January. The short-term research that it recommended was commissioned as soon as the working group identified the needs. We did not wait for the report to be finalised.
Column 779Other committees were established at official level, and work was accelerated in order to forward firm recommendations to Ministers.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) : The report states that in February last year the Hull medical officer of health advised hospitals in his area not to give under-boiled or raw eggs to patients, but it was not until July that the Government conveyed that recommendation to the National Health Service generally.
Mr. Ryder : The doctors, scientists and vets who advised the Government did not have conclusive confirmation until last summer that there was a serious problem linking food poisoning in humans and salmonella enteritidis phage type 4.
My right hon. Friend the Minister informed the Select Committee in his own evidence that Ministers received recommendations from officials in November. He stressed that we not only decided to act on them straight away but that we decided at once to go further by introducing extra measures which included giving statutory effect to significant sections of the codes of practice. In parallel with those decisions, I met representatives of the industry to repeat to them that Ministers took the problem of salmonella very seriously and that we looked to the industry to do so as well. We also urged it, as a matter of urgency, to carry out the action in the codes of practice. I explained to the industry that the safety of the food chain was paramount--one outbreak of salmonella was one too many--and that public confidence in the industry would dissolve unless it was seen to be acting at the same time as the Government began announcing their comprehensive package of measures.
There is a postcript to the story of my meeting with the industry. Last Wednesday evening, after publication of the Select Committee report, I watched the BBC's 6 o'clock news. I saw Keith Pulman of the United Kingdom Egg Producers Association interviewed by Clive Ferguson. Mr. Pulman said :
"The egg producers were not told about it"--
that is, evidence of salmonella in eggs--
"until 19th December".
That is very rum, because Keith Pulman had written in an article in the "United Kingdom Egg Producers Association News" that
"The Ministry of Health announcement on Friday, 26 August advising the public to avoid eating raw eggs was made after full consultation with the industry".
That article was dated 2 September. All I can say is that Mr. Pulman either has a capricious memory or is a victim of impersonation. The Government decisions and meetings to which I have referred all occurred before the ITN interview of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) on 3 December. The Select Committee has rejected the charge that our package of measures would not have been planned, let alone implemented, but for the events of early December. We assert that those 17 measures amount to the most comprehensive package drawn up anywhere in the world to combat salmonella. Action has been taken at every point in the chain from imported feedingstuffs through to breeding and laying flocks. As the House knows, the egg market collapsed towards the end of last year. The
Column 780Government reluctantly decided that emergency measures were needed to stabilise the industry in such unprecedented circumstances. The measures taken are the subject of the motion before the House today. The Select Committee concluded that my right hon. Friend the Minister deserved credit for putting together a skilfully constructed package. It was designed to restore stability to a disrupted market in which sales had fallen to around half normal levels. Hens, unlike men and machines, are not responsive to market forces in emergency conditions. They continue to lay eggs and require feeding even if demand for their product plummets--and, of course, feed is by far the major cost of egg production. As a result of the sudden and dramatic slump in demand, millions of eggs piled up at packing stations and many innocent producers, especially small ones, faced bankruptcy. Moreover, there was a real risk that a major part of the industry's productive capacity would be destroyed so that when demand recovered we would have had to rely on imports to meet it. That would not have been in the interests of British producers or consumers.
The Government therefore introduced two short-term schemes. The purpose of the egg scheme was to restore stability to the market by enabling packers to dispose of the accumulating surplus of eggs. The Government offered payments for eggs destroyed under Government supervision. Although the scheme was only at a safety-net level of 30p per dozen, broadly equivalent to the cost of feed, this rapidly put a floor in the market.
The complementary scheme, for the slaughter of hens, was designed to enable egg producers to cull younger birds in order to adjust production to the lower level of demand which might prevail for some time ahead. Again, payments were offered only at a modest safety-net level of £1.50 per bird, but this at least provided a way out for those producers who considered it prudent to plan for a lower level of output over the ensuing six to 12 months.
In the event, as the Select Committee report states, the package "was designed to put a bottom in the market and did just that". My right hon. Friend the Minister was determined that there should be no half measures. If calm was to be restored to a disturbed market any intervention measures had to be on a bold enough scale to meet the maximum demands that could reasonably be placed upon them. That is why he deliberately provided for expenditure of up to a maximum of £19 million on the two schemes. The real key to the
cost-effectiveness of the schemes, however, was not that figure but the levels of payment offered and the nature of the mechanism adopted. As soon as the scheme had succeeded in raising the market above the safety-net level of 30p per dozen eggs, this automatically removed the attraction of destruction.
I welcome the Select Committee's conclusion that the package was necessary and I am grateful for the complimentary remarks made about it. In the event, the schemes not only achieved their objectives but did so at minimal cost to the taxpayer precisely because of the way in which they were designed by my right hon. Friend the Minister. Nevertheless, I do not wish to leave the House with the impression that those two short-term emergency measures have fully restored the market or resolved the severe economic problems of the industry. Egg sales are still only some 75-80 per cent. of normal and prices to producers,
Column 781though above the rock-bottom levels reached at one stage, are far from remunerative. A full return to normality depends on a full restoration of consumer confidence. I welcome the rising interest in consumer issues, which mirrors my own longstanding political beliefs. Power wielded by interest groups--trade unionists, lawyers, bureaucrats and producers of any description--should be fragmented or balanced by watchful Governments if they exceed the size of their boots. The president of the National Farmers' Union knows full well that my right hon. Friend the Minister and I are not his producers' poodles, but that appraisal may not yet have reached every out-station of the food and farming industry.
Consumer sovereignty is the key to the market place. It can be threatened by monopoly and cartels, trade protectionism masquerading as protection, or neglect of public health standards. The eagle eye of Government must always fall on such threats to consumers, however powerful, influential and persuasive they may be. The rights of consumers must be safeguarded by Government in any democracy where entrenched interests, public or private, can ignore the national good. Producers must adhere to them, and, in fairness, the vast majority of Britain's food industry realises their crucial significance. After all, no industry depends more upon repeat purchasing than does the food industry. To the few whose recklessness undermines the reputation of the many by putting public health at risk, however, my message is clear ; clean up your act or face the full brunt of the law ; and where the law falls short it is being strengthened.
In listening to, and acting on, legitimate consumer anxieties we must never be bamboozled by know-alls and busybodies dispensing flimsy advice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare has already stressed, we should also beware of a few so-called independent experts. During the past few weeks, some people with political axes to grind have implied that the entire food chain in this country is part of a capitalist conspiracy designed to undermine public health. They merit our derision, they warrant our scorn and they deserve our anger.
Some romantics see all new developments in food science as potentially evil and want a return to a 19th century Utopia, but in reality the 19th century posed far greater hazards to health. Diets were restricted--and besides, Utopia never existed. Confidence in the safety of food is the Government's overriding concern. That is why we are taking so many measures to remove the risk of infection in eggs, even though this is recognised by the Committee to be very small. We have launched a campaign more rigorous and more comprehensive than has been launched anywhere else in the world to ensure the maximum possible degree of safety at every point in the chain from chicken breeder to chicken table. Twenty-seven years ago almost to the day President Kennedy sent a message to Congress that consumers should enjoy a right to safety, a right to be heard, a right to be informed and a right to choose. These rights are being and will continue to be safeguarded by this Conservative Government.
Dr. David Clark (South Shields) : First, I congratulate the Select Committee on a truly excellent report on salmonella in eggs. I also wish to commend the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) for
Column 782delivering his report to the House in a very lucid manner. In a sense, his speech today was reflected in the report of the Select Committee, because we saw the same lucidity in that. I congratulate him and the members of the Committee on producing this report so speedily. The Committees of the House have gained a fine reputation for producing reports which are clear and are understood by the ordinary person in the street. This is no exception and the members deserve tremendous credit for producing such a thorough, speedy and forthright report. Apart from the cursory, yet fundamental, criticism of the former Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), they identified the villains of the piece--quite rightly--as the Government. I sincerely hope that the Government will heed the recommendations and the criticisms of the Select Committee.
The Government have completely mishandled the whole affair by their incompetence, excessive secrecy and delaying tactics. By their failure to act speedily they have allowed the problem to become exacerbated and as a result have put public health at risk. Since they were caught out, we have seen a flurry of Government activity in this sphere. Ministers, and the Minister today, repeatedly brag--that is the appropriate word--about the 17 measures that they have taken to control salmonella in poultry since December 1988. That begs the question of why they did not act sooner, because they have certainly been aware of the problem for months, possibly for years. However, even the 17 formative measures leave much to be desired because, as the Minister told me in a parliamentary answer on 3 March, only two of the 17 measures have the backing of legislation and a further five are merely voluntary codes of conduct.
As the Minister knows and has acknowledged, none of the new changes needs primary legislation. Why, over the past few months, have the Government not come to the House and asked for legislation?
Mr. Ryder : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I do not wish to delay the progress of the debate. However, later, with the permission of the House, I shall answer the charge that the Government have not introduced the measures. We have introduced them. They are being introduced and are proving successful.
Dr. Clark : The Minister gives the game away. He should be frank with the House. He has not introduced the measures ; he is going to do so, which is something quite different. The Government have no right to claim that the Minister has introduced 17 measures because, frankly, he has not.
Mr. Ryder : I do not wish to delay the House on this point, but I must put the hon. Gentleman straight. We have doubled the rate of inspections on protein processing plants since December, introduced stop provisions to prevent contaminated material entering the feedstuffs chain and served notice on a plant. We have imposed even more rigorous controls on the importation of animal protein, imposed restrictions on the sale of eggs for human consumption and served notices for the compulsory cleansing and disinfection of premises. I could continue.
Column 783third initiative which he mentioned. He said he will require protein processors to take samples from each day's production and notify MAFF, but the Government are still required to bring an order before the House before they can effect that measure.
The sixth initiative provides for the compulsory bacteriologist monitoring of all poultry-laying flocks. Under section 1 of the Animal Health Act 1981, that still needs to be ratified by the House. The seventh initiative requires the registration of breeding and laying flocks and the monitoring of hatcheries. It, too, awaits ratification under section 1 of the Animal Health Act.
The tenth initiative relates to the tightening up of hygienic handling of eggs, and is inoperative while we await new statutory action. The eleventh initiative tightens up the controls on rodents and is inoperative for the same reason.
The Minister could not have continued. He may be proposing to take action, but he has not yet taken it, which is the key point. The Minister should not mislead the House--and certainly not the nation--by saying that he already has such powers. He has not. He merely intends to take them.
Mr. Ryder rose --