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Column 796Committee on the Environment, and seven concerned with House of Commons matters, occupying the attention of some 150 hon. Members who have put over 100,000 questions. I mention this not because the work of the Select Committees is part of this debate but to put the report into context.
I cannot say that I congratulate the Liaison Committee on choosing this report for debate because, as I have listened to it, the argument seems not to have advanced much since the matter was last debated, on 19 December. I have referred to my notes for that occasion. What I have heard convinces me that the Select Committee has performed a valuable role in ensuring that some of the measures mentioned by my hon. Friend the Minister are pushed forward or have been put into effect, despite the claims of Opposition Members, but nothing has been added to the argument.
I hope that I shall not be misinterpreted--I have come to praise the report, not to bury it, but my praise is perhaps fainter than some of the Select Committee members would have wished. I welcome the recognition of the work done by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in introducing codes of practice, the market support scheme and measures of control and monitoring, although I shall return to that in a question to my hon. Friend the Minister shortly, and I welcome even more warmly the recognition that the risk to healthy people from eating eggs is slight indeed.
Why, then, did I suggest that my praise might be slightly muted? I venture to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for
Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), the Chairman, when he said that he believed that the function of Select Committees was that of a post mortem body--a felicitious turn of phrase, as my hon. Friend the Minister said in his comments on the report. I believe that the best reports anticipate problems, look forward and present possible solutions, but this report has been largely retrospective. Perhaps it has not been retrospective enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare is that rare species, a gamekeeper turned poacher. I have been refreshing my memory about some of the things that he said when he was at the Ministry of Agriculture on the subject of consumer protection and the poultry industry. I would not, of course, wish to embarrass him by referring him to his speeches of 7 November 1980, March 1981 and July 1981, but he certainly took the view then, if I may summarise his comments, that we should not go too far in introducing monitoring and regulations. There are certain passages which, as a good Conservative, he would still own, but of particular interest is the one of 7 November 1980.
Sir Hal Miller : I am quite capable of doing my own research. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare, when he was a Minister, was talking about consumer protection, with specific reference to eggs and the marking of egg packs and the codes thereon, and I agree with what he said. He stated :
"In discussions with Brussels my officials have been seeking amendments with a view to achieving the changes that would be in the best interest of those most concerned. In addition, they will seek some relaxation of the present very restrictive regulations regarding the information that can be put on egg packs."--[ Official Report, 7 November 1980 ; Vol. 991, c. 1649.]
Column 797There are other, similar passages. Why, then, are my praises muted?
Mr. Wiggin : I am deeply impressed by the profundity of my hon. Friend's research. It seems to go beyond that normally carried out by a Back Bencher, but I will not go into that. Will my hon. Friend accept that even the severest critic on the Opposition Benches acknowledges that the problem of salmonella enteritidis inside whole eggs did not come to anyone's notice before 1982, by which time I had happily been translated to other spheres?
Sir Hal Miller : Of course. It was only out of natural admiration for my hon. Friend, perhaps tinged with slight envy as I myself have never held ministerial office, that I wished to refresh my memory of the wisdom and authority of his utterances in that post. He is correct to say that the incidence of this particular salmonella came to our notice after he had, unfortunately, left the Treasury Bench, to the regret of many of us, including myself.
I wish that the Committee had felt able to give itself the time to look a little more widely and to take account of what is happening in our partner states of the Community, because it is believed that this disease is widespread and has perhaps a greater incidence in certain other member states than in this country. That raises a matter to which the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) referred briefly--the question of imported eggs.
Mrs. Ann Winterton : If my hon. Friend has read the evidence taken by the Select Committee, he will know that those points were raised and questions were asked about egg imports. He is right that there is a serious problem in some parts of Europe, and we do not want to put our egg producers out of business only to import eggs from a place where we cannot control the standards of production and hygiene.
Sir Hal Miller : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and happily compliment the diligence of the Committee, but its recommendations lack a specific course of action with regard to the important matter of imports. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure the House.
I would have wished the Select Committee to look a little further ahead, not merely in regard to the research to which it drew attention, but in terms of how some of the measures that it recommended should be implemented. I wonder whether there are adequate vets to carry out all the proposed functions, and whether any consideration was given to the proposals by the veterinary colleges, whose authoritative research would have been welcomed and respected. It might have been possible for the Select Committee to take more account of the role of local authorities, and not just of the number of vacant posts for environmental health officers about which we hear so much from the Opposition.
I would have hoped for some reference to the slaughter policy and compensation to farms affected by zoonoses orders. I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I ask my hon. Friend the Minister about the scope of a zoonoses order. Will it apply to an entire farm or to an individual poultry house? That is a significant point for many producers. I should be grateful if the Minister would let us know. There is also concern about how the monitoring and inspection measures are to be paid for. In the case of other
Column 798animal diseases the Government contribute towards the cost of monitoring and inspection. Egg producers are anxious about that aspect.
In conclusion, in whose interest has the debate been? It is not clear that it has helped the housewife, although the report and the work of the Select Committee brought about a response from the Ministry and was very useful. However I do not think that the housewife is better informed as a result of today's debate. I am particularly concerned that caterers have still not reacted positively to the measures that have been taken. Down on the farm, the position is still serious. Large producers are still experiencing prices some 15 per cent. below break-even, and there is concern that the recently determined slaughter compensation prices are inadequate and will undermine the confidence of suppliers, particularly in the matter of chick placings. Those suppliers will be concerned about the viability of customers who might be exposed to the incidence of disease, which could lead to a serious shortage of eggs and consequent high prices. The smaller producers face retail sales down by 20 per cent. and sales to catering firms down by 60 per cent. I am still left wondering why the Liaison Committee chose this subject for debate. I cannot see whom it benefits, except perhaps the Opposition, who have nothing to offer--the idea that they had any interest for the consumer is laughable to those who remember their commitment to the coal producers or any other producing interest and their total disregard of any interest held by consumers of any product of nationalised industries. In that context, I must tell the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that the article in Farming News provides the answer. It says :
"Every night the members of the Labour party interested in agriculture (all three of them) must go down on their knees and praise the Lord for salmonella, listeria, Professor Lacey and BSE. These plagues have come as manna from heaven to a party which is still waiting for its policy revue' before it knows what it is supposed to think about agriculture."
Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North) : Many years ago I was a member of the Ponterwyd young farmers' club. One wintry evening I was chosen to speak on behalf of the club at a public meeting of the young farmers' movement. We were not told the subject until we reached the hall. On the platform I was given a piece of paper which said, "You are given three minutes to speak, if it is your wish, and the subject is eggs." Being a young man, I found it very difficult to find any words on the subject, but I said, "If you eat a boiled egg or a fried egg for breakfast, you will lead a healthy life and you will be able to work on the farm for the rest of your days."
Forty years later I am confronted with the same problem. We are confined to saying a few words about eggs. But I have a little more to say this time and I shall speak for longer than three minutes. First, I should like to endorse the sentiments expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House on the excellent way in which the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) and his colleagues dealt with the situation, their urgency and the way in which they presented their report. I shall go a little further than the hon. Members who have paid tribute to the hon. Gentleman by saying he did an excellent job on television when the industry was at a crossroads and when the Government were in troubled waters in regard to eggs. The hon. Gentleman gave an assurance to producers and consumers that he would look into the matter and make
Column 799recommendations to the Government. Personally and on behalf of my colleagues I should like to thank him for what he did.
Tonight, what has been missing from the debate is a sense of proportion. A few unguarded words from a junior Minister caused great havoc in the industry and panic among the buying public.
The Government must restore confidence in the industry and reassure consumers that they can eat eggs without fear. It is vital that they do so, for two reasons. First, eggs are an important part of our daily diet. They are cheap and easy to prepare. It follows that the egg and poultry industry must be encouraged, and be protected from unfair competition and unforeseen costs resulting from the need to introduce new and safer production methods. Unfair competition will arise unless and until the high standards that are to apply in this country are matched throughout the EEC. Raising standards will cost a great deal of money, and may mean a number of producers going out of business. Consequently, imported eggs will be at a lower price. There must be safeguards against that both for the sake of the consumer and to protect the industry's future.
The industry's future cannot ultimately be left to market forces because, clearly, they will operate against the best interests of consumers. It is the Government's responsibility to ensure that the industry survives in good shape. It is the Government's responsibility also to ensure that the level of funding available for research and development is adequate. The agriculture industry as a whole has been apprehensive about research cuts, and many parts of it fear that important areas of research will be starved of necessary funds. A great deal of work and money is necessary to ensure the eventual eradication of salmonella in eggs. If we are to succeed, cash limits should have no part to play in that objective. Sufficient money must also be made available to provide monitoring facilities, because the industry should not be expected to pay for them. The Select Committee has done a worthwhile job, and its recommendations should be accepted by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. At the same time, it must be remembered that the egg industry has gone through a traumatic period. Even today, egg sales are down by 15 per cent., with producers losing £20 million since the beginning of December, and the national flock being depleted by about 2.5 million birds.
Monitoring and improved production methods will be extremely expensive, and many smaller producers may feel unable to carry on, so the Government must be prepared to be more generous with compensation, and more understanding of the higher costs involved in developing the industry along the right lines. The health of the consumer must always be a priority, but that cannot be achieved without a positive Government commitment.
I make a final appeal to the Government not to dismantle the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food because of what has happened. The Ministry has served the farming industry and consumers well over many decades. I read with regret that the Labour party intends dismantling the Ministry ; I read in the press that the Labour party is proposing a new Ministry of Food and Farming.
Dr. David Clark : I wish to make the position plain, because I do not think that there is any deep disagreement between us. We believe that all food production ought to fall within the responsibility of one Ministry --the Ministry of Food and Farming, say. It is imperative that, from the plough to the plate, food production is in the hands of one Ministry. Also, the consumer must be protected by an independent food standards agency. However, I emphasise that we believe still in having one Ministry covering both food and farming.
Mr. Howells : I listened to the hon. Gentleman's comments with interest. I shall not comment, because it is now up to the agriculture industry to decide whether, after hearing what the hon. Gentleman had to say, there is to be a change in the nature of the Ministry.
Mr. Ryder : Perhaps I may be of assistance to the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) because, by happy chance, I have a copy of the press statement of 17 February issued by the hon. Members for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and for Livingston (Mr. Cook) setting out their views on the subject, which stated : "The Foods Standards Agency would be independent of Ministers but responsible to Parliament."
If the agency is to be independent of Ministers but responsible to Parliament, which Ministers will answer questions about it?
I have a further question for the Minister. Will he give a helping hand to the agriculture industry, which has been financially clobbered because of present Government policies? Unless something is done, many small farmers will go out of business. Please give a helping hand before it is too late.
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton) : It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells), because we share a common concern in respect of many matters that he has raised in previous debates. I echo his remarks concerning the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which has served the country well. A very good case would have to be made for dismantling it--and it is not a case that I would anyway support. During my lifetime, I have followed the advice that the hon. Gentleman gave to young farmers all those years ago, because I was brought up on the maxim, "Go to work on an egg". Unless I had a lightly-boiled egg for breakfast every morning, I would not have the strength to stand up and face you, Mr. Speaker, in my efforts to participate in debates.
Putting frivolity to one side, we are debating a serious subject. When the Select Committee on Agriculture was appointed at the beginning of this Parliament, it could not have foreseen that it would be catapulted into the public eye by the subject matter of the inquiry on which it reported in the middle of the salmonella crisis just before Christmas, caused by the unclarified statement of a former junior Health Minister.
I shall address myself to one or two points arising from the Select Committee's report, which was published last week--not least, the package of measures introduced by
Column 801my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. There is no doubt that urgent action was needed not only to restore public confidence but to prevent financial disaster among British egg producers, who would otherwise have been put out of business or placed in serious financial difficulties. I reiterate my earlier remark concerning the importance of our domestic egg industry and the benefits that it brings to this country, which would have been jeopardised if egg producers had been forced out of business by last December's crisis.
I was often dismayed by those people who commented publicly about the so- called strength of the agricultural lobby, saying that consumers' interests were being overridden in the interests of egg producers. My belief is that consumers' best interests are virtually the same as those of producers-- because unless producers heed consumer demand there will be no market for their goods and they will be put out of business.
The fact is often overlooked that farmers and their families are also consumers. Generally they are not in the business of producing food that they would not expect their families and neighbours to eat. They have been somewhat maligned in some press comments.
I do not know what advantage it is to the consumer to put egg producers out of business. As we know, imported eggs have many problems. No Government could control the standards of their production and few guarantees could be given. It would not serve this country well for eggs to be imported. We must watch out for that. It is also true that no food can be made absolutely safe or sterile. Cast-iron guarantees cannot be given. We found in our report that many of the food poisoning cases that we have heard about were directly due to poor storage, cross contamination and unhygienic practices in private domestic kitchens and in catering
establishments. Much work needs to be done to tighten up standards, especially in catering establishments.
Salmonella enteritidis is behaving in every way identically to other salmonellas. There is no reason to believe, and no evidence to suggest, that its incidence will not grow to a peak and fall back, as other salmonellas have done, and then be replaced by another strain. I am not in any way being complacent, because one case of salmonella enteritidis poisoning is one case too many. I speak as someone who has suffered from acute salmonella poisoning, although I hasten to add it was not enteritidis. Some years ago, on my return from India I was extremely ill. I lost a lot of weight so that the buxom woman hon. Members see before them was a mere skeleton. I would not wish that condition on even my worst enemy.
Many of the problems about food that are highlighted in the media these days are due to the policy of successive Governments of providing cheap food. The subsidies that have been given to the producers, although not to egg producers, first took the form of deficiency payments and then, following our entry into Europe, the CAP. All those have been indirect subsidies to consumers to provide a steady supply of temperate foodstuffs at moderate prices, and to iron out the highs and lows of food production that can never be predicted, depending as they do on our unpredictable weather. Egg production has always been unsubsidised, but some of its overheads depend on the policy of the CAP, in the cost of cereals.
This cheap food policy has also been responsible for the development of our intensive livestock and agricultural systems. Farmers have always worked within parameters
Column 802set by the Government. Therefore, both after and during the war when temperate foodstuffs were in short supply, the agricultural community responded magnificently to the challenge to produce more. It was no fault of theirs that the bureaucracy that is Europe was made impotent to act by the political pressure maintained effectively by the small and inefficient farmers of France and Germany. Our agriculture industry, including egg producers, needs not a kick up the backside but a pat on the back for its achievements as good custodians of the countryside, and for producing our supplies of temperate foodstuffs, thereby saving on our balance of payments. That subject is very much in the public eye, and being debated generally at present.
The difficulties that have faced our egg producers have been typical of those in an industry that by its very nature is fragmented. We know that 30 million eggs are consumed each day and that 68 per cent. of the flock is held on 400 holdings. The remainder are dispersed among 40,000 smaller enterprises, many of which supply eggs directly to the public at farm gates or through a local outlet. The big five retail chains are supplied by the largest egg producers. Stringent checks are made on the quality of the product. It should be said that the food chain in this country is far superior in every way in its high standards. It compares very well with the much lower standards of other European countries.
However, there is a genuine cause for concern that, through the Government changing the policy on research and getting the private sector to take up near market research, certain projects will fall through lack of funding. It is very difficult to unravel the difference between research into the public good and research that has an imminent commercial application. That difficulty is heightened because of the fragmentation of the egg-producing industry. I suggest that somehow the egg producers must get together on research so that it can be funded by the industry as a whole, possibly through a levy. It is not for me to suggest the means, but it must be funded by the industry as a whole rather than by one or two major companies. It is obvious that developments on, say, a test for salmonella enteritidis to be used on the farm should be readily available to all those selling eggs to the general public, including small producers. Such a test and such an assurance would greatly restore confidence in the quality of the product.
I believe, too, that national standards must be set by the Government. All hon. Members will have experienced the diversity of ways in which regulations are implemented by local authorities' environmental health officers and meat inspectors. There is no set standard to which they must adhere. That mistake must be addressed. Such a measure will be unpopular because it will cost taxpayers money. Indeed, consumers must realise that they will be expected to pay more for a higher quality product.
The priorities of my parents' generation were having a roof over their heads, clothes to keep them warm and good food. There were no other competing priorities in those days such as mortgage repayments or repayments on luxury goods. Many of those, such as washing machines, which are often of foreign manufacture, or video recorders, are considered no longer to be luxury goods.
Column 803Committee, leaves the question of paying more for the best possible inspection standards, could she share with the House its thoughts on section VII of the report, which the Minister completely ignored? However much we pay for inspection of UK production, is it not the case that if imports are not properly inspected the consumer will not get the protection, however much is spent on inspecting our own output?
Mrs. Winterton : My hon. Friend makes a very good and valid point, which I could not better. He is absolutely right. In my remarks about the standards of food production, I was also saying indirectly that if people do not want eggs produced from the battery system they must pay more for eggs produced in a different way. There is a cost for all of this.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about ensuring that the production standards of food, anything else that is introduced into this country are as high in the exporting countries as they are here. More often than not, the standards of this country are far better than those of our European counterparts. But times have changed. Surely good food must be considered as one of the highest priorities in household expenditure.
Many people have tried to calculate the risks of eating an egg contaminated by salmonella enteritidis. It has been compared by some as having the same risk as being struck by lightning. Indeed, the risks to people walking down Oxford street doing the shopping one afternoon must be far greater.
Although the scare about the wholesomeness of eggs for normally healthy people has been an over-exaggerated storm in an egg cup, many lessons from it will have to be learned by the Government, and the report sets those out in a clear and unambiguous way. I recommend the report to hon. Members and respectfully suggest to those who hold power in their hands that its constructive criticism and recommendations will be ignored at their peril. The Government will emerge with credit if, for once, they listen to wise counsel and act on it.
Unlike the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), I do not expect a change of policy to be announced after this debate, but the Government should reflect on the recommendations of the report and bring forward measures to effect the necessary change.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) : Little did I know when I wrote to the Chairman of the Select Committee on 6 December last asking that we investigate the statements made by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) the amount of media attention that the subject would attract. Nor did I envisage the sort of political shock wave that would be created. This has become a high political issue, though I do not kid myself that I had anything to do with it.
I am surprised that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South is not in her place for this debate. The Select Committee report opens its introduction with the comment by the hon. Lady :
"We do warn people now that most of the egg production of this country, sadly, is now infected with salmonella."
That was why the Select committee met. It resulted in 400 pages of evidence and a report containing many
Column 804recommendations. Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box on many occasions attempting to answer questions put by hon. Members in all parts of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) criticised the Government strongly on some issues, yet the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South is not in her place for this debate. That reflects the fact that the hon. Lady not only held the Select Committee in contempt but appears to hold this House in contempt. The least she should have done was to appear. Although it is not cricket to criticise people in their absence, I regret that she is not here because one would have expected her to turn up today.
I enjoyed being a member of the Select Committee and I echo the comments that have been made about its Chairman, the hon. Member for Weston-super- Mare (Mr. Wiggin). He was fair and he represented the Committee well when he appeared on television. He presented the case excellently today. He was not entirely fair to two of the witnesses. Dr. Lang and Professor Lacey. Their view differed greatly from that of the Chairman, but they had every right to express it and it would have been better had he not criticised them so much today. We produced a unanimous report, and I appreciate the support that was given by Conservative Members. It is easy for Opposition Members to criticise the Government of the day ; it is our job to do that. It is more difficult for Government supporters to produce a report which is in some ways critical of the Government. Another reason why that proved possible was that Labour Members on the Select Committee took a responsible attitude. We were all after the facts and we were not interested in scoring political points. We have reached a conclusion that gives almost a good clean bill of health to this country's eggs.
The egg producers' representatives, as distinct from the egg producers, did not do their cause any good. They were, and still are, divided. The Minister criticised a producers' organisation. Neville Wallace, the director-general of the British Poultry Federation, did not do his case much good. Those representatives gave a complacent view to the Select Committee. They suggested that there was really nothing wrong with egg production, when we knew that there was a problem. The view that people could continue to eat raw eggs, as advocated by Mr. Wallace to the Select Committee, was rather irresponsible.
Nor did the representatives of the Retail Consortium do themselves any good. When, last week, we debated food in general, I referred to that body, as a result of which it sent me a scathing letter, and I gather it sent a copy to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare. It claimed that I had misquoted the consortium.
I was also sent a copy of a letter that the consortium had sent to the Government complaining that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South had said that all or most egg production in this country was contaminated with salmonella. In fact, she referred to "egg production." Here was the Retail Consortium, supposedly a responsible body, spreading the rumour that most eggs in this country were contaminated with salmonella. If those concerned claim that egg sales have gone down, they must, at least in part, accept responsibility for that.
Reference has been made to imported eggs, and that whole issues concerns me. The chief medical officer of health pointed out that in Spain, for example, between one in 1,000 and one in 100 eggs were contaminated. That compares with one in 12,000 in the United Kingdom. It
Column 805would, therefore, be dangerous for us to reduce our production and import eggs from a country such as Spain. Indeed, in view of the figures given by the chief medical officer of health, it might be wise for the Government to consider stopping the importation of eggs from Spain at this time.
I have been doing some research recently, talking to food companies which test employees at various times--for example, when they begin work with the company, when they take ill with symptoms of food poisoning and when they return home from holidays abroad. One company which has been carrying out such tests for a decade informed me that three quarters of all cases of salmonella poisoning among employees in its factory concerned employees returning from holidays abroad. I have looked into figures produced by another company which has been carrying out similar tests for six years. In that case, only one quarter of its employees so suffering had returned from holidays abroad.
Clearly, much information is available in Britain, and the Government should be studying it to discover the reasons for the food poisoning epidemic. I apologise for using the word "epidemic" ; the report urges us not to use it. We must have tighter standards Europe-wide--most people who go on holiday abroad visit EEC countries--otherwise we shall not get to the bottom of the increase in food poisoning in this country.
Much has been said about the role of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but I shall not dwell on that today. That Department has been found wanting in many areas, but at least we have a Minister from that Department before us today and ready to stand at the Dispatch Box to answer our questions. It is noticeable, however, that there is not a Minister on the Front Bench from the Department of Health.
The Department of Health seems to think that it was not involved in, or concerned with controlling, the outbreak of salmonella. In fact, that Department was probably more guilty, so to speak, than the Ministry of Agriculture. I appreciate the way in which spokesmen for the latter have not tried to suggest that the criticisms levelled against it have been ridiculous.
On the other hand, the Secretary of State for Health has objected to such criticism. As I pointed out in an intervention, the Select Committee received evidence to the effect that as far back as February 1988 the Hull district local authority's medical officer of health, Dr. Dunlop, realised that there was a major problem with raw eggs and stopped raw eggs and undercooked eggs being given to patients in hospitals in his district.
No action was taken by the Department of Health, nationally, until July 1988, and only then did the Department give guidance to National Health Service hospitals. It did not give any guidance to the general public until almost a month later. That, in itself, represents criminal neglect of the situation--there is no doubt about it. If one health district knew in February 1988 that there was a problem, why did not the Minister know? I suspect that he did know, yet he took no action whatsoever.
I come now to the famous statement that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South made on 3 December. We all know that that was a problem, but, as has been said already, it should have been corrected the following day. The Secretary of State for Health came to the Dispatch
Column 806Box--on 6 December, I think--to pacify the country, and the chief medical officer was put on television to calm the situation. Let us look at the facts. During the week ending 3 December 1988 there was a drop of 15.5 per cent. in egg consumption, compared with the corresponding period in 1987. After the Minister had been to the Dispatch Box the drop increased to nearly 30 per cent. Following his appearance on television the week after that, consumption had gone down by 49 per cent. Such was the assurance from the Minister. I do not think that it was right for him to appear on television and use the word "ridiculous". I get the feeling that he is becoming a little remote from this place. My wife's favourite film star is Humphrey Bogart. [Laughter.] I am talking not about "Casablanca", or even "The African Queen", but about the captain in "The Caine Mutiny". That gentleman seemed to accept responsibility for nothing. He used to play with marbles and put the blame on everybody else. He said that it was ridiculous to blame him, even though he had people counting how many spoons of ice cream were being taken.
That is how the Secretary of State has been behaving--and not only in respect of this matter. Those of us who saw him respond on television to the comments of the British Medical Association on his White Paper on health will remember his saying, "Of course, you have to remember that the doctors opposed the concept of the National Health Service." What he forgot to tell people was that the Conservative party had fought the concept of the National Health Service root and branch. I am greatly concerned-- actually, I have to admit that I am not really concerned--about whether the Secretary of State's reputation will ever recover from the crisis arising from salmonella in eggs.
The main purpose of this report was to satisfy the general public that, having looked into the situation, we could tell them whether there was any danger in eating eggs. We came to the conclusion that there was a slight risk for certain groups, but our recommendations will mean that the British public can turn the clock back to the time when they could eat hard-boiled eggs, soft-boiled eggs, raw eggs, fried eggs, scrambled eggs--any kind of eggs they liked--without fear of food poisoning. If the recommendations of the Select Committee are carried out, the general public will be able, once more, to eat eggs with confidence.
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) : I enjoyed working on the Select Committee with the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). Although I do not agree with the tenor of all his comments, I think it is clear that Members on both sides of the House, together, have been able to produce an effective report.
I should like to make two general points in introduction which I think have not been made earlier. First, the general public have only a vague and ever -changing apprehension of the nature of risks that they face. Very often the major aspect of change in risk is not some objective shift but rather the amount of media coverage that the risk is given. It suits us that matters within our own control--such as whether or not we choose to smoke-- do not get quite the prominence of matters in respect of which we can feel that
Column 807someone else is to blame. In a sense, that is perfectly reasonable. I do not see why people should have to face uncovenanted and unacceptable risks.
In another context I suggest that perhaps one day we should give some consideration to the establishment of a national health risk assessment machinery rather like the National Radiological Protection Board in a narrower area to tell the general public about the risks that they face. However, in the absence of such machinery, as paragraph 101 of the report indicates, it just is not possible to eliminate all elements of risk and it is just as irresponsible to over-emphasise risks as it is to play them down.
The only time we become immune to risk is when we are dead. In the meanwhile, we have the problem that our grandmothers tended to teach us about. They worried tremendously about germs. There are germs all around us. We do not succeed in eliminating them, but equally they do not succeed in eliminating us. What is important is when circumstances change.
In all these public health matters, the real issue for the Government is the management of risk, keeping it at acceptable levels and, if possible, reducing those levels, and in laying the facts before the public.
The second general point that I want to make concerns the nature of the Select Committee's comments on the Government's response. It is a law of nature that if a Select Committee inquires into the actions of the Government it is more or less bound to be critical. I do not think the reasons are particularly political. I do not think there is some deep interest, although obviously the Opposition have a natural interest in drawing the tenor of a report away from uncritical support of the Government. It is simply that Governments are fallible. Governments always get something wrong, and, by the nature of their general duties, Select Committees sometimes have to criticise their actions. That does not mean that this Select Committee report constitutes what the media have presented as a "savage attack" on the Government. It is a balance of risk that the Government present ; it is a balance of criticism that the Select Committee presents.
A Select Committee's greatest luxury is to be able to criticise with hindsight. The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) not only joined us in the use of hindsight but seems to have second sight as well. In earlier exchanges, he referred to the work of the Research Consultative Committee in 1985. When I asked him about it, he, quite accurately, but irrelevantly, referred to the general increase in the incidents of salmonella enteritidis, and phage type 4 in particular. I have no quarrel with that, but the fact remains that if one looks at the figures for 1985--or rather the figures for 1984, which was the last year whose figures were available to the Research Consultative Committee in 1985--such is the changing nature of the disease that typhimurium was responsible for half the cases that year and the whole complex of enteritidis, not the particular strain only, accounted for only 14 per cent. of the total number of cases. Furthermore, it could not have been known by the Research Consultative Committee in 1985 that eggs were the problem because, even in 1988, the public health laboratory service said that the evidence remained scanty. I think that the hon. Gentleman was being less than fair to the House, and indeed to me personally, in developing the
Column 808point as he did. We all know that this is a changing situation in which everybody has been to some extent perplexed and at odds. I feel that the Committee had to make some allowance for that changing situation and the way the scientists have viewed it. As the report, in paragraph 20 and elsewhere, makes clear, eggs were a new dimension in a new variant, a new special type, of the multiple problem of salmonella. We did not know the risk a priori and we still do not know the full story. Hence the importance which various hon. Members have attached to further research. I welcome that, although the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who is absent now, perhaps over-emphasised some of the cuts in agricultural research. I speak as a member of the Agricultural and Food Research Council. The hon. Gentleman should study the transcript of the press conference at which some of those matters were discussed recently.
As our knowledge has increased, the Government have had to alter and tailor their advice. That is bound to lead to charges of confusion and inconsistency. As the position changed, the Government response had to change. In conclusion on the general matters, it is reasonable for the Select Committee to criticise the specific timing, but we cannot fail to recognise that the Government, like the consumer, have a problem.
That brings me to the specific points. We need to remember that the debate takes place on the expenditure that the Government incurred on the egg market intervention scheme. We all welcomed the fact that the final cost of the scheme was only 20 per cent. of the forecast. Clearly there was a need to intervene because of the massive drop in market confidence in eggs. Even though that has been partially repaired, long-term market damage has taken place and it has had a knock-on effect on other farmers, particularly cereal farmers. For example, all the efforts that the Ministry put into set -aside to reduce cereal surpluses have been wiped out by the reduction in agricultural markets because of the reduction in the demand for eggs. Faced with a specific and definable problem, much easier than the general scientific problems to which I have referred, the Ministry of Agriculture got its act together. It was very much in the interests not only of the public and consumers for it to do so, but of taxpayers as well, otherwise there would have been more cost to the taxpayer for cereal intervention.
Three other points ought to be emphasised because, perhaps through haste, they did not appear as much as they should in the report. The first, referred to by several hon. Members, relates to imported eggs. I attach considerable importance to imported eggs because salmonella is at least as big a problem in some Mediterranean countries and probably generally in western Europe. It is unlikely that it will be picked up by a few random and token samples at ports, even if samples are taken. From 1992 there will be an effective free market in eggs across national frontiers in western Europe. Therefore, the answer must lie in building on the working party which has been established to lick the problem at European level.
I hope that the Minister will make reports to the House after tonight on further follow-up action that he is taking in the domestic market and on the European initiative because we need to cut off the problem at source so that all eggs are salmonella-free, wherever we get them.
Column 809The second point relates to broiler breeder flocks. We naturally wanted to confine the report to eggs, but we had interesting evidence from Hull, which has been referred to in the debate, that there was a specific problem with double yolk eggs that are taken off broiler breeder production and consigned to direct consumption. That may be taken into account in the new provisions for monitoring under the code of practice. Broiler flocks do not normally cause a problem because chickens are cooked thoroughly before eating, thus killing the bug, but I do not think that eggs should be transferred from broiler flocks to direct human consumption.
The final specific point involves catering establishments. It is obvious from the evidence that part of the problem of food poisoning, though not the original source, lies in the kitchen. A single family cook may be just as prone to make mistakes as a caterer. The difference is that in one case damage is confined to a family and in the other hundreds may go down with the disease. I am particularly concerned about sandwich bars, if for no other reason than that I am fond of sandwiches. Sandwich bars should be effectively monitored by local authorities, even if that means that they will need more resources.
On the general lessons of the report, the references in paragraph 32 to effective control at all points in the food chain, from the farm of origin all the way to the kitchen, are important. There are many gateways and pathways through which salmonella may come. It is important to close and restrict as many as we can. Some are in the farmer's hands, some in the trade and some in the kitchen. We must have resources, the right pattern of regulation and incentives to comply with the regulations.
The history of zoonoses and protein processing orders, as presented to us in evidence, suggested that the position was far from ideal in the past. Of course, legislation was generally, though not always, in place, but it was not working effectively. For example, the Protein Processing Order had no power to stop the sending out of food from a source that was known to have been infected. There was no compensation under the Zoonoses Order. That put considerable strain on the professional farmer. If he suspected that he had a problem, was it wise to raise the issue? It also put a considerable ethical strain on his veterinarian as to whether the problem should be reported under the order. Of course, it should have been reported, but whether that was done on the proper scale is perhaps another matter.
Government Departments are always conscious of another problem. While it was uncertain that one could point the finger at an individual farm, as soon as the Ministry cracks down and says, "Though shalt not sell," it is involved in litigation with producers. One needs to draw a contrast with the practice under public health legislation which for some time has enabled the payment of wages to infected persons who are taken out of food factories because they are carriers ; they may be paid until the infection is stamped out and they can go back to work.