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There is no excuse for not bringing forward the necessary statutory instruments. Labour Members and, I am sure, Members of the Liberal and other minority parties would agree that we would facilitate the passage through the House of any Bill which protected public health. We have repeated to the Government--and I repeat today--that they have no excuse for not introducing such legislation.
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden) : Is not the hon. Gentleman judging Government action in the light of what he now knows? At the time, what evidence did the Government or the hon. Gentleman have that would have led him to take the sort of action that the Government took last year? When should that action have been taken--many months ago or some years ago? Frankly, the evidence did not exist.
Dr. Clark : The hon. Gentleman intervenes in most of these debates, which is helpful to me because it gives me the opportunity to develop my arguments, and I shall certainly consider the detailed points that he made. I was simply replying to assertions repeatedly made by Ministers, and by the Minister this afternoon, that, since December 1988, the Government have introduced 17 measures. Those measures have not been introduced. The Government intend to introduce them and any leglislation in the form of statutory instruments will certainly be supported by the Opposition. [Interruption.] The Minister disagrees, but I warn him that the Government are responsible to the House and the Minister does not rule by edict. Statutory powers are laid down and the Minister knows that he must bring regulations to the House. I shall now deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith). The
Column 784Opposition's argument centres on the Government's slowness and delay in handling the food issue. Perhaps one of the most disgraceful factors was the Minister's failure to tackle the problem of salmonella food poisoning earlier--about which the hon. Member for Wealden asked.
Apparently, the Select Committee supports my view that if the Government had acted when they originally discovered the signs, they would not have found themselves in the ridiculous mess which followed the former Under- Secretary of State's comments last December. Also, they would have saved the taxpayer £3 million. I refer the hon. Member for Wealden to the conclusions of the Select Committee, which support the thrust of my argument.
What signs and evidence are there of salmonella poisoning? The report shows that evidence had been accruing since 1982, and that salmonella enteritidis --not just salmonella--had been increasing and had become a serious health problem. In July 1985 the Government's food safety research consultative committee reported some revealing points, which I shall quote in answer to the hon. Member for Wealden. Its report stated :
"In 1983 more than 17,000 cases of bacterial food poisoning were reported in the United Kingdom. More than 80 of these involved Salmonella The United Kingdom faces a serious and apparently deteriorating situation in regard to microbial food poisoning This subject is highly-research sensitive."
Mr. Boswell : The hon. Gentleman quoted from the report that 80 per cent. of cases were related to salmonella. What proportion of that 80 per cent. was related to salmonella enteritidis, and what further proportion was related to salmonella enteritidis phage 4? It would be useful to have those figures.
Dr. Clarke : The hon. Gentleman is usually so well informed that I am amazed that he asked that question. The minutes of evidence given to the Select Committee on which he served contain the answer on the first page :
"The isolation of one serotype, salmonella enteritidis, has increased almost 13-fold between 1981 and October 1988".
I need not continue. I wish that the hon. Gentleman had studied the report before he deigned to intervene. That was our of character. He appears to have missed a vital piece of evidence.
We have evidence that the Government knew there was a problem as far back as 1982. It is interesting to note that the Department of Health was aware of the possible connection with eggs as far back as November 1987. For confirmation of that, I refer hon. Members to page 171 of the evidence.
Next, we discover that the Minister became clearer about the risk of eggs in May 1988. A month later, on 13 June, the DHSS called a meeting which included representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and, interestingly enough, representatives from the industry. I say "interestingly enough" because of the strictures that the Minister directed at those representatives this afternoon. The House will recall that the purpose of the meeting was "how to inform the NHS that recent outbreaks of salmonella food poisoning at two hospitals appeared to have been caused by raw eggs".
True to form, the Ministry of Agriculture and the industry decided once again to play down the matter. It was not until 29 July that hospitals were informed of the problem.
Column 785Even worse, we had to wait another month, until 26 August 1988, before the chief medical officer warned the general public--another example of the Government's secrecy and delaying tactics taking over official policy.
Finally, on 3 December, the former Under-Secretary of State for Health signalled an apparent change of approach when she said--I quote with care--
"We do warn people now that most of the egg production of this country, sadly, is now infected with salmonella."
I draw the House's attention to the fact that the first word of the text of the Select Committee's report was "we".
The former Under-Secretary of State was clearly not speaking as an individual : she spoke on behalf of the Government. The fact that she said "we", not "I", was a clear sign that she was enunciating Government policy
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith rose --
The Select Committee was clearly correct to conclude that it found "no evidence to support Mrs. Currie's assertion".
We believe that she should have been allowed to qualify her original ambiguous statement, as she did in a letter to the Chairman of the Select Committee on 25 January. If she had done so at the time, much unnecessary suffering could have been avoided.
All this does not detract from the fact that the Minister of Agriculture has shown incredible complacency about the problem. When the Ministry found a farm selling eggs contaminated with salmonella in May 1988, it failed to take action and continued to allow eggs from a farm with a flock that was proven to be infected with salmonella to be sold to the general public. The Ministry issued no warnings to consumers. As the Minister reminds us, we had to wait until January of this year--nine months--before the Government implemented a clause under the Zoonoses Order to stop that sort of thing happening.
In evidence to the Select Committee the Minister justified not taking action sooner on the ground that only a small proportion of eggs was affected, which is no answer. Surely he must have known that people were dying of salmonella poisoning. As many as 35 died in 1987 from all types of salmonella, nine of them from salmonella enteritidis phage 4. Incidentally, the figures for 1988--they are now available up to the end of October--were considerably worse : there were 48 deaths from all types of salmonella and 23 from salmonella enteritidis phage 4.
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton) : Can the hon. Gentleman tell me from the table of figures from which he is reading how many of the people who were supposed to have died from salmonella poisoning were suffering from other serious illnesses? I understand that some were suffering from terminal illnesses.
Dr. Clark : The hon. Lady is familiar with the report, which contains the evidence to the Select Committee on which she served with such distinction. I quoted figures from the report because, as the debate is about it, I thought
Column 786that the best way to proceed. I do not have the detailed figures that she seeks. Paragraph 7(3) makes the point that some of the patients suffered from other diseases.
The Minister knew that there were dangers. The hon. Lady has made the point more succinctly than I could. We are all aware that the problem is much more acute for vulnerable groups--the ill, the young and the elderly. That is the message of the report. The Chairman of the Select Committee made the point that for healthy people the problem is not nearly as great as it is for vulnerable people. The Minister made great play today of how he would bring the wrath of the law down on people who were found transgressing and putting public health at risk. The record of such action, however, is not particularly good. I have already cited examples of farms that were proven to be sending out contaminated eggs. Twenty-one protein processing plants were found in 1987 to be sending
salmonella-contaminated feed to egg producers. In spite of being warned, some of them continued to ply their trade ; yet the Ministry refused to name them, so the poultry breeders and egg producers did not know that their suppliers were sending them
salmonella-contaminated feed. The Minister also refused to prosecute--so his words today have a hollow ring. The Government have been weak on enforcing the legislation and thereby safeguarding public health.
Another hallmark of the Ministry's approach is obsessive secrecy. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) seems to disagree, but I shall justify my remark. If the Ministry had not been so secretive, it would have been more able to tackle the problem. The result would have been that many of the egg producers and the workers in those plants would not have been placed in such a vulnerable position. They are in that vulnerable position because the Government were plainly caught unprepared and had no contingency plans. The fault is wholly the Government's and the Minister knows it.
The Minister quoted figures today showing that egg demand is about 75 per cent. of what it was. He knows that the irony is that in the months ahead, because of bankruptcies and redundancies, we may have to import eggs from abroad, which will come from flocks over which we have no control. That does not seem to be a sensible approach. Will the Minister work with the EC to ensure that other countries have as high a standard of poultry hygiene as possible? How does he intend to cope with the problem of the import of eggs from non-EC countries? How will he ensure that they are salmonella- free? As the Minister has pointed out rightly, we are dealing with an international problem. As a result of his own complacency and his having no contingency plans, he made the industry very vulnerable.
Before I leave the issue of secrecy, I must point out that the Minister announced last month that he would establish a committee on food safety to deal with salmonella and other issues, chaired by the eminent Professor Richmond. Since that flourish of trumpets, the Minister has become strangely quiet. Why is that? Who are the other members of the committee? Will he ensure that there are representatives from the consumers on that committee? We would find it completely unacceptable if, as is the case with the Food Advisory Committee, there was only one representative from a consumer organisation. On previous occasions, the Minister has claimed that there is more than one consumers' representative on the Food Advisory Committee, but he is wrong. There is only one such
Column 787representative, Mrs. Ann Strumper, representing the National Federation of Women's Institutes. All the other members who do not represent industries represent bodies such as the British Nutrition Foundation.
Dr. Clark : I have checked those facts, so the Minister may want to apologise afterwards. The British Nutrition Foundation is funded by levies from industry. Other committee members represent trading standardsoperations or other professional bodies. I repeat my charge--
Dr. Clark : The Minister does not understand my point. We are in no way challenging the integrity of the people who serve on that committee, but the point that I am trying to make is that they are there to represent viewpoints and organisations. They are not appointed because they are consumers and the only person who is appointed because she is a consumer is Mrs. Ann Strumper. The others are appointed because they are trading standards officers or representatives of industry. I hope that the new committee will contain more people from consumer organisations.
In a recent written answer the Minister confirmed that members of the advisory steering group on food surveillance are required to sign the Official Secrets Act 1911. Will the members of the new committee be required to sign it? I must remind the Minister that we are living in 1989, not 1939, and it would be for the benefit of consumers and the industry if we had far more freedom of information. An obsession with secrecy runs throughout the Minister's approach.
A further reflection of that secrecy is the Minister's habit of not being open with hon. Members. Last week, I tabled four simple, naive questions about hygiene standards in abattoirs in the United Kingdom to which I know the Minister has the answers on file. All I received was a holding answer that he would reply as soon as possible. That is an example of the Minister withholding information from the House. He knows that EC inspectors are in this country at present inspecting abattoirs which, by and large, are in a dreadful state.
I want to draw attention to the point made by the Select Committee about research and development. Has the Minister anything fundamental to tell us today about that crucial matter? I would like to think that, when dealing with a matter as important as that, the Minister would admit the error of his ways and would step up research into the complex problem of salmonella. In particular, is he prepared to work with industry as a partner to try to continue Dr. Mead's research project at Bristol? There are only two more years of field trials to go. The Minister
Column 788would have the support of Members of all parties if he made an announcement and took an initiative on that project.
Mr. Ryder : The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point and I want to quote from the evidence given to the Select Committee : "There is a number of companies in GB at the present time who are interested in applying the work done by Dr. Mead on their farms. I know of at least two organisations who want to apply competitive exclusion techniques : in part to see whether they can assist in the control of salmonella in their growing flocks."
Who said that? It was not a Government Minister, but the Government's chief veterinary officer.
Dr. Clark : I was under the impression that the Government's chief veterinary officer was paid by the Government, not by industry. Obviously, I was wrong. It seems to be privatisation gone too far when we find some private companies paying the salary of the Government's chief veterinary officer. The Minister must not play semantics with the House. The chief veterinary officer is an officer of the Ministry, as the Minister knows.
I repeat my question : is the Ministry prepared to go into partnership with industry, if necessary, to ensure that that vital research work, which has two years to go in field trials, is continued? The Minister knows as well as I do that industry is reluctant to pay the lot because it is worried that the independence of the study would be put in jeopardy if it funded the whole work. We are talking only about £300,000 for two years' work. The Minister and the Ministry have a terrible record. The Minister knows that over 2, 000 posts have been lost from the Agricultural and Food Research Council and he also knows that the Government are shortly to propose the axing of a further 2,000 jobs in vital food and agriculture research and development. Will the Government recognise that that is a shortsighted approach? Will the Minister increase the number of research staff working on salmonella?
We tried to do some work, at short notice, on the Select Committee report. We looked at its recommendations about monitoring flocks and we believe that we need at least a further 50 members of staff in scientific work if the protections for which the Select Committee asked are to be carried out. It is imperative that if new research is carried out into salmonella money is not switched from other essential research work on bovine spongiform encephalopathy or listeria. To rob Peter to pay Paul is not an effective way to run research and development.
I note with interest that the Select Committee believes that the Government should actively discourage retailers from issuing misleading statements about eggs. Is the Minister aware that eggs are still being sold as being salmonella-free?
Dr. Clark : If the hon. Gentleman listens, he will understand the difficulty. Will the Minister confirm that he has not issued any guidance to local authorities about the misleading nature of such claims? In the interests of consumer protection, will he not issue advice to them? This specific issue highlights the Government's failure to issue clear advice to consumers and local authorities about food matters and the need for a body such as a food standards agency to give independent advice to consumers.
Column 789I am sorry that the Minister has not seen fit today to give us even a preliminary assessment of the Government's reaction to the Select Committee report. We have been able to give our reaction. The Minister saw that--
The Minister has been dilatory. It would have been helpful to have more of a reply than we have received this afternoon. By not providing such a reply the Minister has added weight to our charge that the Government are in a state of complete confusion when it comes to handling the issue of food safety, and has confirmed our general view that procrastination and confusion are the order of the day. The Government do not know what they are doing, and meanwhile the health problem is getting worse and worse.
I urge the Minister to take more definitive action in the next few weeks, if he cannot do so today. If he brings orders before the House as soon as possible to protect the public health, he will have the support of Opposition Members.
Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North) : I begin my modest remarks with a declaration of interest. I am a non-executive director of J. Bibby and Sons plc, a subsidiary of Barlow Rand, whose activities include animal feed production.
Opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) said that it might be argued that the topic had had more than its fair share of attention. I do not think, however, that my hon. Friend or the Select Committee should be at all diffident about bringing it before the House. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has reminded us, questions of public health were very much an issue in the politics of the last century. We think of Disraeli or of Richard Cross--although my hon. Friend sounded more like a Gladstonian Liberal as he reeled off his consumerist aspirations in the Department. In any event, we are discussing public health today in support of a real and legitimate public interest. I congratulate the Select Committee on the temperate nature of its report, which I believe will be of great value to all who carry on the debate more publicly in the world outside. I also congratulate the Liaison Committee on choosing the matter for debate in the House. I wish to raise four points. The first is of a quasi-constitutional character, and concerns whether ex- Ministers should appear before Select Committees. Departmental Select Committees are of such recent origin that they are all the time tentatively establishing parameters, not merely for their current work but for the work to be undertaken by successor Committees. The objective of a Select Committee in the last century--perhaps set up to investigate circumstances related to railway legislation--would have been to examine the public at large, not to examine other Members of Parliament. But when we set up the departmental Select Committees at the beginning of this Administration a convention was established whereby Ministers--who, by definition, were Members of Parliament--would appear before those Committees and give evidence. It was therefore necessary to find an appropriate and protective
Column 790framework. It was established, for example, that advice divulged by civil servants was not conventionally to be disclosed to Select Committees.
It seemed to me inevitable that at some stage there would be interest in parliamentary circumstances involving the resignation of a Minister, and it would have been inconceivable in common-sense terms for the Committee to carry out its work without seeking and securing evidence from my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). She approached it with quasi-Trappist enthusiasm, but that is not really the point. The point is that the principle was established and, I am sure, is of value to the work of Select Committees. Our thanks are due to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and the Committee's members for their handling of a very delicate issue affecting the way in which this place conducts itself and, ultimately, how it is seen by the public.
A more difficult task is to comment on the behaviour of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health, and I do so with diffidence and sadness because he is a good friend of mine. In "Who's Who" he states that modern jazz is his recreation--he is the Satchmo of the Treasury Bench. He is also one member of the current Administration who actually looks as though he enjoys his job. I work on the basis that one Cabinet Minister found in Ronnie Scott's is worth 10 captive cultural apparatchiks at Glyndebourne. As a consequence, however, my right hon. and learned Friend's relaxed attitude has the potential to slide imperceptibly into the cavalier. I well understand his reactions when my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South made her compelling contribution to the debate about food hygiene. On 5 December, he told the House :
"It may be that many hon. Members are a little envious of her natural gift for obtaining publicity. This is not the first occasion on which she has obtained great publicity on a serious matter".--[ Official Report, 5 December 1988 ; Vol. 143, c. 20.]
These are all matters of judgment, not of political morality. There is no more to it than the grubby business of being a street politician getting by from one problem to the next. From the day she arrived in the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South should have worn a label saying that she was a political health hazard. She was a person of extraordinary genius, gifted in almost every quality except that of being a subordinate, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State found that the matter in question had been given a most powerful lift by her television interview. It is easy to speak with the benefit of hindsight, but I say bluntly that that was a political situation and not a technical contribution to a discussion on health education and public health generally. Although it was understandable that Sir Donald Acheson, the chief medical officer, should have been propelled into being master of ceremonies for the next few days, I think that that judgment was mistaken.
It is a matter of careful political discrimination to decide how senior members of the public service should be used in such circumstances, and it is often a considerable political hazard. There has been an increasing tendency for public servants to be put into the position of being more overtly political in speech and behaviour than would have been the case a generation ago. That forms a kernel of seriousness in the wider issue. Although I feel that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State was wrong
Column 791to hold back from the circumstances for so long, I do not feel that he should be the subject of serious censure. Of course not--it is the kind of mistake that we all make on a day-to-day basis in the conduct of our political lives. Nevertheless, the Select Committee was absolutely right to identify that point and to make that judgment, and I wholeheartedly concur with its convictions.
On the subject of research and the comments in paragraph 41 of the report, I had not heard of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) as a great agricultural debater and he seemed to me to have a preference for the sword rather than the ploughshare today. I should have thought that there must be broad general agreement across the House with the recommendations of the Select Committee and, indeed, with the tentative response from the Government. Nothing can be definitive at this point, but I am sure that there is widespread anxiety that we should look again at the funding of research in the industry to see what is a proper and legitimate public commitment, especially in trying to establish the mode of transmission of salmonella and the whole question of bacterial and viral infections in farm animals. I do not think that this is an area in which one can be dogmatic, but there is a long and legitimate tradition of collective interest and responsibility in the funding of research into these matters. I hope that my hon. Friend will not think it too much of a streak of Tory paternalism if I suggest that we look at the present levels of funding to see whether they can be improved. Finally--this is the point at which I have a modest direct interest to declare--I should like to talk about the regulations that the Government must secure to have more effective control over a healthy food supply throughout the chain. Of course, I suspect that the area of most intractable difficulty is domestic hygiene and what goes on in the house, where one can do little more than constant exhortation. Government can take action, it seems to me, for example, in regulations concerning animal feed, and I very much welcome the recommendations made in this report in paragraphs 62 and 63. The regulations which have to be made must, first of all, be enforceable, and they must be enforced. That is true in relation to both on-farm mixers and compounders. Secondly, in seeking effective regulations, we have to ensure that they can be applied equally to imported as well as home-produced products.
Those are my four points. I end as I began by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and his Committee on the report. There is always a tendency to try to fashion out of a fairly scrawny acorn a massive constitutional oak. I shall not do that, but I say to my hon. Friends and to Opposition Members that in the past decade or more we have seen a situation in which increasingly the power of the Prime Minister dominates the Cabinet and the Executive dominates the House. The traditional means whereby this House has sought to balance the Executive by debates and the normal forms of processing legislation are becoming less and less effective. I do not yet assert that Select Committees can tangibly help to restore that balance, but the process is well started and I offer congratulations to my hon. Friend and to the members of the Select Committee.
Column 7925.43 pm
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe) : I start by echoing some of the words of praise for the Chairman of the Select Committee. It has been said to me that it is very hard indeed for 11 people from three different parties to come to a conclusion. However, the reason why the Committee did compile its report so speedily and in such depth and, in fact, came to a unanimous conclusion, was that it recognised the very serious nature of the salmonella scare, the effect that it was having on the industry and the need to react quickly to determine not only what the real threats were but to examine the way that the Government had handled it at every level. Not everyone saw that in the same light, and I refer in particular to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), in terms of the assistance which she gave to the Committee. It has been said that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South did the country a service in bringing this matter to the public's attention. That in many ways is undeniably true ; she was, in fact, the catalyst which led to this inquiry and allowed the Committee to uncover a number of issues, whereas the Government, shall we say, did not give a sufficient response. However, it must also be said that her comments were purely accidental. They were not made out of any great concern for the consumer, and when she had the chance to clarify them, she did not take it nor, during the course of the Committee's inquiry, did she join the Committee to state what she knew about the serious deficiencies in the way the Government were tackling the serious problems. I do not believe that her role in all this should be acclaimed as being of any great assistance to the consumer. In fact, because she refused to clarify her statements, £3 million has gone on compensation which could have been spent in more productive areas, for example, on research or other medical areas.
At that point, I must take issue with the Secretary of State for Health over the way that he dismissed the criticisms of the Committee as they refer to him personally. If we accept that the former junior Minister had to resign over the mistake that she made--we know that it was a mistake because of the Committee's inquiries--we should also accept that the Secretary of State for Health should take his share of the blame as part of the collective responsibility of government, as he was her immediate superior. It does the Secretary of State no credit whatsoever to dismiss those comments, nor does it do the Department of Health any credit that there is no Minister here today to take part in this debate. I believe that Ministers are abrogating their responsibility in this affair by not being here to discuss it. There is one issue in the report that I would like to expand on in depth, and that is whether free-range eggs are safer than battery eggs. The Committee found that the evidence suggested there was slightly more risk with free-range eggs than with battery eggs. This was because the independent scientific adviser pointed out that in free-range systems the eggs are more likely to be laid on the ground, where there is a higher risk of faecal contamination. There are also problems with droppings of wild birds and shared drink water, with the risk of cross-contamination. Those are very valid points, which I do not criticise in any way. However, since the report has been published I have had the opportunity to make further inquiries. I should point out that, of course, the Committee
Column 793was not given the responsibility of looking into whether free-range eggs were safer than battery eggs, but I would like to take this opportunity to evaluate the differences between them.
The evidence suggests that there is no greater risk with either system. I have seen a report by the Institute of Animal Physiology and Genetic Research at the Edinburgh research station by Dr. Hughes, who carried out detailed studies into the incidence of eggs being cracked when laid. He came to the conclusion that it depends on the laying box being used and he demonstrated in his work that there could be a lower rate in certain free- range systems than in battery systems. His argument is that cracked eggs are more of a risk than external faecal contamination. He also pointed out that the incidence of cracked eggs depends very much on the age of the bird ; as the egg-laying hen gets older, the shells get thinner and therefore the incidence of cracking is higher.
I have also seen a paper by Mandy Hill, a MAFF scientist, who looked at the alternatives to battery systems, such as free-range, straw yards, deep- litter, aviaries and percheries. In July 1981 the former Select Committee on Agriculture recommended that the battery system of egg production be phased out within five years. I am sorry to say that few steps have been taken in that direction. Quite apart from the fact, which few would dispute, that the battery system is an unattractive way of handling animals, it could be argued that there are inherent risks of cross- contamination because of the constant proximity of birds. There are more humane ways of producing eggs. They may be more expensive, but people are now prepared to pay slightly more for products that are produced in an environmentally sensitive and, as in this case, more humane way.
Mandy Hill discovered that the perchery system had clear advantages, and that is confirmed in a paper by McLean, Baxter and Michie of the Scottish farm buildings investigation unit which points out that the perchery system has clear welfare advantages, providing such things as dust baths and wider areas in which birds can move around. In addition, the collection of eggs from Astroturf cuts down the number of cracked eggs in comparison with the battery system.
The 1981 Select Committee recommended that more research should be done and that funds should be allocated to look into more humane ways of producing eggs which avoided contamination. It recognised that any restrictions on egg production must be in the EEC context. Restrictions on the way in which birds are reared and eggs produced would be grossly unfair to our poultry farmers if continental egg producers could export their eggs produced at lower cost using a less humane system. The report suggested that there should be a block on such imports or that agreement should be reached within the EEC. The 1981 Select Committee also suggested that financial incentives should be given to poultry producers who wanted to experiment with more humane systems, and I concur with that. The Select Committee pointed out that the Brambell committee also recommended phasing out the battery system.
The joint working party of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of Health and the egg industry considered whether greater risks were attached to free-range or battery eggs. It concluded :
"Initial thoughts that the problem"--
Column 794that is, salmonella--
"may be more closely associated with free-range eggs are now difficult to support in view of the information available in incident one where salmonella enteritidis exposure occurred in the contents of two eggs not in the shell."
It goes on :
"We ought to be very careful about blaming the free range system for having a higher rate of incidence."
I concur with that.
The Select Committee made its recommendations on information available within a narrow context, but there is no scientific basis for suggesting that free-range eggs are more at risk from salmonella contamination than battery eggs. There is significant evidence to suggest that the battery system is an inhumane way of producing eggs and should be phased out in line with the recommendations of the 1981 Select Committee's report.
The Select Committee dealt with cuts in research and I wholeheartedly concur with its recommendations. However, since that report was published I have received correspondence from scientists working in research centres in Bristol, one of which is faced with cuts. Let me quote from one letter, from a gentleman whom I shall not name because I did not ask his permission to do so. I do not want to embarrass him, particularly at a time when people working within various Government institutions in the public sector are often threatened for speaking out even when to do so is in the public interest. It says :
"Quality and safety are foremost amongst the considerations of the scientific programme and, as you may know, the Laboratory houses the United Kingdom's leading group working on the problem of eliminating salmonella infection from eggs and poultry. However, since Government and AFRC policy on food research, especially on commodities such as meat, milk, eggs, poultry, etc. is one of contraction and retrenchment to ill-defined generic' research, it seems inevitable that such necessary public good' work will not take place. Clearly, the fragmented, introspective sectors of the agriculture and food industries are not capable of taking the broad public good' view, if left to themselves, and they obviously need strong direction and support from Government acting through the country's R and D agencies."
It is clear from the evidence that the Select Committee received that, far from receiving clear support and direction from the Government, Britain's agricultural and food research institutions are going through a period of cuts which is undermining the basis of research into food quality and safety.
The letter goes on :
"To take the opposite view, as is present policy, and in effect to throw responsibility for the nation's health and safety on to commercially-minded organisations, is clearly as dangerous as it is ineffective."
The Minister read from evidence to the Select Committee given by the chief veterinary officer about Dr. Mead's research programme at Bristol. However, he failed to read on to the point where I challenged the chief veterinary officer to say whether any commercial firm had signed a contract to pick up Dr. Mead's research. His answer was clearly no. That had not happened. Even if it does happen, it is irresponsible for the Government to throw open research which is so concerned with the public good to the whims of private industry without adequate funding or without ensuring that information will remain widely available. The package of cuts proposed by the AFRC puts at risk programmes such as that on meat identification which is designed to identify meats such as horse and kangaroo in meat products. To end such
Column 795programmes in the run-up to 1992 when there will be much more open access to such products seriously puts at risk people's health. Another environmentally-friendly programme that will be put at risk as a result of the cuts is on the replacement of pesticides in crop control by the use of nematode worms. Green issues seem to be the order of the month, as dictated by the Prime Minister. The irony is that the Prime Minister visited that programme and saw it in operation, but now it has received the kiss of death and is to be ended. That has happened in the approach to 1992 when all our European rivals are giving more funding to their agricultural research and development. In contrast, we are giving such research less funding and throwing it open to the whims of a fragmented industry which is in no position to pick up such research programmes.
The Select Committee has given a balanced and well-considered report. The Minister has boasted today about the Government's 17-point programme, but it is fair to point out that the Government have done more in the course of the Select Committee's inquiry than has been done in the last decade in poultry research and salmonella control. That in itself underlines the value of the Select Committee and the important role that it has played in this whole affair. I also recognise what was said by the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), that the Select Committee had to go to certain lengths to compel the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South to come before the Committee. I hope that that has now set a precedent so that when Select Committees are trying to do their work for the benefit of the whole community they are given the support that they deserve from all hon. Members.
As regards the Government's policy on agricultural research and development and the cuts, I hope that the Government recognise that they are making mistakes. They have arrived at the stage where the cuts are biting so deep that they are putting the consumers' health at risk. I hope that they will decide to turn away from the ideological blind alley that they are in, and will put the needs of the consumer first.
Sir Hal Miller (Bromsgrove) : I follow very closely the remarks of the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), particularly in relation to the lack of difference in liability to salmonella between free- range and battery eggs. He has done us a service. He followed my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) in supporting a research programme, although it was not clear from his rather general remarks which particular direction he wished the research to take.
I join with others in congratulating the Select Committee on Agriculture and its Chairman on the selection of their report for debate. It is only the second report of the Agriculture Committee to be debated, but only one in 10 is debated. Thanks to research done in a publication on the new Select Committees, in a chapter by Geoffrey Lock, I find that up to the 1982-83 Session only six out of 193 reports were debated. Those reports contain 4,400 pages and cost £5 million to produce. In that period there were 80 overseas visits and 180 visits in this country. Since the 1985-86 Session, only six departmental committee reports have been debated, two from the Select