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Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East) : I am happy to have the opportunity to congratulate the Select Committee and its Chairman on the speed with which they acted to limit the damage done to egg producers in the United Kingdom, and particularly in Northern Ireland, as a result of the crisis caused by the ill-chosen remarks of the former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health. That reported, headline-grabbing comment created unjustified fears among consumers and dramatic falls in egg consumption, to the loss of those throughout the United Kingdom whose livelihood was directly associated with egg production.
We should not forget that egg producers are also egg consumers. They have young children and elderly relatives who could be vulnerable, and they are unlikely to engage in any egg production practice that could threaten their livelihoods, their own health, that of their loved ones or that of consumers. I welcome the report and its recommendations. I feel reassured, as will my constituents, by the fact that no evidence was found to support the assertion that most egg production was infected with salmonella, whether that was taken to mean most eggs or most flocks.
Hon. Members have referred a good deal to food hygiene. If consumers cook eggs thoroughly for vulnerable groups--recognising that there is a small risk with uncooked eggs--and follow the chief medical officer's advice, I am confident that any risk of illness can be avoided. Experts agree, however, that salmonellas are impossible to eradicate, so it is important that every housewife--indeed, every individual who cooks in a kitchen or prepares food for
sale--recognises the dangers that can be caused by the careless storage or handling of food.
Mrs. Ann Winterton : Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that there is a part to be played by education and that young people at school should be taught in home economics about the necessity for hygiene in the home? Sadly, that subject is not included in the national curriculum.
Mr. Beggs : I thank the hon. Member for that very constructive intervention. Having been a teacher for many years, and having encouraged every boy in the first three years of his attendance at secondary school to gain experience in cooking and domestic hygiene, I feel that as adults those who have not had that experience will be greatly disadvantaged and perhaps--I hope not--there could be some risk to health due to the absence of first-hand knowledge of domestic hygiene. It is to be hoped that the Government will encourage an education programme not just for young people but to promote greater public awareness generally. I know, for example, that many people deliberately order cracked eggs for
Column 823baking and cooking. That is fine if they receive them fresh and use them immediately, but carelessly stored eggs provide an excellent medium for the growth of bacteria and people who allow shells to get damp, and so on, are creating a risk for those who may use food cooked with such eggs.
Reference has been made to the large number of eggs imported into Great Britain and the risk from foreign eggs. I shall not mention the sources that have already been mentioned, but I take the opportunity to remind the House that no case of salmonella enteritidis has been found in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, because the majority of eggs produced in Northern Ireland are exported, particularly to the rest of the United Kingdom, the salmonella scare had a very serious effect on Northern Ireland egg producers.
First, there was the effect on egg consumption in Northern Ireland, which fell dramatically. Despite the fact that no cases of salmonella were found in Northern Ireland, the publicity--much of which was well-intentioned-- carried on after the damage was done, continuing to make the situation worse, and this had a significant detrimental effect on local consumption. Secondly, the scare in the rest of the United Kingdom resulted in a very substantial fall in demand. Indeed, the fall was so great that production in Great Britain was able to meet demand and there was no need to import eggs from Northern Ireland, so producers there were left with eggs that they could not sell. Local producers in Northern Ireland thus lost heavily as a result of the scare and, despite the Government's advertising programme and reassurance that the salmonella danger was greatly exaggerated, demand is still well below normal.
The intervention package introduced to help producers by taking eggs off the market and culling egg-laying birds did not have a great take-up-- first, due to the short period of operation and, secondly, due to the fact that producers were not likely to kill young birds. Had the scheme been for older birds, the take-up would have been much greater.
Although there have been no cases of salmonella enteritidis in Northern Ireland, I am pleased to assure the House that there is no complacency and that the industry there has a working party involving the union and the Department of Agriculture, working together on codes of practice to tighten up the already high health standards in Northern Ireland. I hope that hon. Members will acknowledge that the large quantities of eggs exported from Northern Ireland to Great Britain are not "foreign" eggs but very pure eggs and that Northern Ireland has the highest possible health standards and health record as regards our farm livestock and the food products that we export. Indeed, an opportunist might say that Northern Ireland egg producers should be aggressively marketing their eggs at a premium here on the mainland because I believe that people would be willing to pay a premium for the purity of the eggs supplied.
Since the scare, I have not altered my own habits--confident in the knowledge that the eggs produced locally in Northern Ireland are absolutely free of salmonella infection. I continue to eat hard-boiled, scrambled or lightly fried eggs. For those who have not tried it, an excellent tonic is raw eggs--provided that they come from
Column 824a good source--with a little brandy to give people a lift if they are feeling low. I shall probably need exactly that after I have finished here this evening.
'Tis an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and I am satisfied that after all the public discussion since the salmonella crisis erupted poultry meals will no longer be included in layers' rations. Myth or no myth, in my opinion such recycling within the food chain is offensive. I do not want ever to eat any such product, no matter how well sterilised the previous product was before it was fed to any farm livestock, and I hope no former animal protein will be included in livestock feed.
Northern Ireland producers have still not recovered from the damage done and I am disappointed that the Government did not take the opportunity to emphasise and re-emphasise widely that eggs produced in Northern Ireland were salmonella-free. Nevertheless, I commend all those responsible for the report and trust that the Government will act quickly to implement all the recommendations put forward so that full consumer confidence can be restored.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) : I join my colleagues in congratulating the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), on the way in which he handled our meetings.
This report raises three essential issues to do with the way in which the Government handle crises. I would like to focus upon the inter-relationship between when the problem is dealt with at an administrative level and when it emerges at the political level. We have to look first at the handling of the pre-crisis within the Ministry of Agriculture--the crisis I am talking about is the great debate of December--and the co-ordination of the response across two Ministries because two Ministries were centrally involved in this. Finally, we need to examine the crisis management during that short period in December and what followed it.
The key to the first issue, the pre-crisis situation in MAFF, is at what point the doubts being expressed about health and the safety of the product should be translated from the administrative to the political arena. Ministers do not walk into their office on Monday morning and say, "Well chaps, how many prosecutions have there been under the Zoonoses Order since last Friday?" They have to deal with such a crowding of events that they must depend upon being alerted when events which have been rolling on in the Ministry begin to emerge as a problem which warrants political attention.
The first question that the report asks is whether those warnings were effectively coming through to Ministers. Were the people in the Ministry who had been dealing with those matters for months, if not longer, alert to the political liabilities that were building up for Ministers? Under the British system we have ministerial responsibility. It is entirely right that a Minister should at the end collect whatever flak is appropriate. However, it is also important that there should be an effective upward flow of information. If the job of civil servants is to protect their Ministers, their job must also be to warn their Ministers of any problem.
I deduce from my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare and from the evidence given to the
Column 825Select Committee that the first time that the discussions reached a ministerial level was as late as November. For example, there had been no ministerial meetings with the industry before November. Before November there had been no plans to make codes statutory rather than voluntary. It must have been obvious before that that this was a sensitive issue and we are correct to criticise the slow pace at which matters evolved within the Ministry.
It is right to ask why that might have been. One reason must be because, in a sense, the Ministry of Agriculture is a Ministry apart. It spends a great deal of its time dealing with Brussels and the problems of the common agricultural policy. It has not been at the forefront of the great reforming drive of the past few years which has hit the headlines. It may not have become accustomed to dealing with politicised issues as may have become the case in other Departments.
It is equally true to say that there has probably been a weary de ja vu about problems of surplus and mountains affecting the Department. There must have been a weary repetition of the sort of problems that were constantly brought to the Minister's attention. Therefore, when there were warnings, whether they came from the Department of Health or internally within the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, they were not acted upon urgently enough, or they were not understood or they were not pressed hard upon Ministers.
It is also true to say that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is still fairly producer-oriented. I do not accuse Ministers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) was present earlier. Over the past few years the way in which the Ministry goes about many of its problems has changed fundamentally. However, the Ministry's origins mean that basic concern with producer interests is still deeply rooted within the Department.
In addition, the Government have set their stamp upon the notion that they are a deregulatory rather than a dirigiste Government. Therefore, I do not blame civil servants if they are reluctant about recommending to Ministers measures which might have a dirigiste stamp about them when they know that the inclination of their political masters is to move in the opposite direction.
That brings me to another difficulty that the report highlighted. Even if it had been agreed that action should be taken and measures enforced, the legal basis for that was inadequate. There were no prosecutions under the Zoonoses Order. One or two show trials would have been useful if only pour encourager les autres. That was not possible, and I am sure that that was because the advice would have been that there would be a danger of a judicial review and a defeat because of the legislation in train.
When the problem emerged in the political theatre, the action was prompt. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister because it was he who took the issue by the scruff of its neck, after which we saw rapid and effective action. My reproach is not directed towards the political level but towards the inter-relationship between the administrative and political levels.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was not the only Department involved. The Department of Health was involved. What do we know about inter-departmental communications? At what level were contacts made? Again I deduce from the evidence given that there were no ministerial contacts between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the
Column 826Ministry of Health at any early stage, but there must have been contacts between the Departments at other levels. At what level did they take place? They must have been at a senior level. There must have been such contacts. The Department of Health's anxiety must have been expressed within the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. So we come to the problem of the transmission of that concern at the point at which Ministers say, "Hello, we have a problem. We had better look at this. There is something here that does not feel quite right." I realise that in a sense that is a matter of political intuition, but it is a legitimate subject for concern.
Then we come to the crisis management of the famous events of December when my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) made her comments about the safety of eggs in a pre-arranged television interview. I am a professional journalist ; a television reporter. I paid my subs to the National Union of Journalists only a few days ago. What would I do if such remarks were made to me? This is a matter for conjecture, but I would get hold of a Minister from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to corroborate the statement. I do not know whether those involved were successful in getting hold of the Minister, but I know jolly well that they would have chased him. That is what I would have done. That would have been my immediate reaction.
What does the Minister do? If he has any sense, he says, "Hold your horses. Let me find out what she said". He then gets on to his Department who gets on to the Department of Health. The telephone wires go berserk. I am sure that the whole matter was conducted in a civilised way. It is merely my hypothesis that this was most likely to have happened. Representations would then have been made to discover what was said and to find out what was to be done. The Department of Health then has a problem. It has a choice to make. One possibility is that it can go straight in front of the television cameras and say, "This is not true. This is wrong. We deny it. We argue with the statement." My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was on his way to Montreal at that point, so we are talking about an argument between junior Ministers. A public dispute between junior Ministers is not an edifying spectacle. Therefore, it is entirely correct that at that point the focus should have been upon seeking clarification of the remarks to try to nip things in the bud by retraction or some sort of explanation of the remarks.
Was such a clarification sought? I surmise that it must have been. Was it refused? I suspect that it must have been denied at that point. That failure to clarify meant that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the producers were then put in the position of refuting an allegation. There was no requirement to substantiate the allegation. That is contrary to everything that I have learnt, even as an amateur of the principles of English law where one is innocent until proven guilty.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health came to the House and told us what the situation was. The Government's chief medical officer was sent in to bat. In the absence of a clarification from the author of those remarks, we had a drama involving Hamlet without the princess. That was the key to the problem. When, later on, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South said that she stood by her remarks we
Column 827were going downhill all the way. The crisis management was extremely difficult in any case, but it got beyond control at a fairly early stage.
When we got over that hump and reached the position when it was necesary to put measures in place, we saw crisis management at its best. The Government acted responsibly and quickly and, as it proved, economically. That floor was put under the industry, albeit at a late stage, because of events, and it prevented what was a defeat from turning into a rout. From the figures that we have had today, we know that consumption is now significantly down. But that package was opportune and well constructed and it turned out to be economical as well. In congratulating the Ministry on doing that, our report is quite justified, just as it is justified in its criticisms where they have been made. I am sure that everyone will recognise the essential equilibrium of the balance at the heart of the report.
My conclusion is that, while we need not shift furniture around, we must make sure that the Department has an effective mechanism for the vertical transmission of information within it and also that, where Departments have to co-ordinate, they do so in an effective manner. The least good remedy would be to create yet another institution which would require co- ordination with yet more bodies.
The lessons from this experience are to make sure that those Ministries and other existing bodies operate effectively and that we do not attempt to solve a problem simply by an institutional rearrangement because, in the end, it is efficiency of the people that matters, not the geography of the institutions. It would be an entirely wrong appreciation of the problem if we went in that direction instead of recognising that it is the quality of the people that is essential to this debate.
The report is both apposite and balanced. I am pleased that we have been able to sign it, despite one or two reticences at an earlier stage in the procedure, and I am happy to join in the congratulations to the Committee's Chairman who has made such a good job of representing us here in this Chamber, as he has done throughout the debate.
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mo n) : I congratulate the Chairman and members of the Select Committee in performing such an admirable public duty, the speed with which it conducted its affairs and presented its report and for its service not only to the House but to the public generally, both producers and consumers. I would also like to compliment the House on the responsible way in which, for the most part, this debate has been conducted, in that we have tried to draw the lessons from the whole salmonella affair.
I detected at an early stage that panic was setting in, following the remarks of the then junior Health Minister, because I went to a restaurant in the capital city of Wales, Cardiff, shortly afterwards and from the menu I saw that, for the first time ever, I could order a mixed grill with or without eggs. That showed me that the retail side of the trade in restaurants was panicking. What was remarkable was that the people who were actually buying the eggs were not panicking as much as people who were buying
Column 828them in the restaurants. Although the retailers were not prepared to buy eggs from producers, very often the consumer was perfectly happy to buy them.
One could see immediately the remark was made that producers would suffer. I declare an interest in that my son keeps a few hens. As he had decided that there might be a few pennies in it for him, we decided to carry out an academic exercise. We bought a little book and worked out a profit and loss account. My son suddenly realised that there was not a lot of money in eggs, that the margins were extremely low and that he would have to have a very large flock of hens before he could get a return and pay himself a decent wage. So he and I both knew, as soon as that remark was made and because we were aware of the very small margins for most egg producers, that they would be in deep financial trouble very quickly.
What was required at an early date was that confidence in eggs should be restored. The problem was that the Department of Health consistently refused to contradict the statement of the junior Health Minister. All that happened when the Secretary of State for Health came to the House was that he repeated over and over the view of the chief medical officer. Unfortunately, the public was still left with the view of the junior Health Minister and, unless there was a retraction of her statement, the public would still believe that there was a problem. Until there was an adequate retraction of that statement, we would continue to have problems.
When the Secretary of State for Health came to the House to respond to a private notice question a few days after the event, he adopted a rather cavalier approach to the whole affair, and I am afraid that the House itself in many ways adopted a cavalier approach. The House should remember that what we say here amongst ourselves is reported out there and that the people out there are concerned about things that go on.
When the Secretary of State appeared before the Committee to give evidence and was asked about the junior Health Minister's statement, he said :
"The statement on the Saturday interview, the material statement if you like, I do not actually have an opinion on because as I said, personally reading it I think it is ambiguous."
The public did not think that it was ambiguous ; the public thought that it was a real problem. The Secretary of State was armed with briefings and with all the up-to-date information. He may, therefore, have considered that the statement was ambiguous, but the public did not think that it was. The Minister failed at that stage to contradict the statement ; it might have breached collective responsibility. Yet his duty to the producer and the consumer should have meant that at that stage he put the record straight. So collective responsibility within the Government took precedence over the duty of the Government to present information to the public. I want to compliment the Minister of Agriculture on the way in which he eventually handled the crisis. There is no doubt that market confidence had been lost and that, in view of their small profit margins, egg producers faced financial ruin. The Minister acted properly because he put a floor into the market. He acted responsibly and in the way one would expect a Minister to act, bearing in mind that he was trying to respond to a crisis which was not of his making. The industry itself was pleased with the way in which he eventually reacted.
Column 829What lessons do we learn from the crisis? In the way that the political side of it was dealt with, it should have been realised that the unfortunate remark, which was only later and partially retracted in a letter to the Select Committee, should have been retracted earlier, and the Minister should have been able to handle the affair at the Dispatch Box. We could then have ensured that the crisis would not deepen, as eventually it did. The Government should have accepted that responsibility.
The crux of the matter is underlined in paragraph 111 of the report, which says :
"We believe the public is entitled to expect the Government to take, and be seen to take, all reasonable measures to ensure the safety of food."
That clearly is the case and we need to underline it. But do we need a new Department to deal with this? My own view--I speak for no one else on these or other Benches in this regard--is that we probably do not. It is not the structures that are important, but the way that people in the existing Departments respond.
I take the point made in the report that there needs to be greater liaison and co-ordination between Departments. I feel pretty sure that the lesson of the debacle will have been learnt in both Departments and that from now on there will be more liaison and more discussion to ensure that it will not be repeated in future. I commend the report to the House because I believe that it is a responsible report and we should all learn from it.
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : I begin by replying immediately to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Mo n (Mr. Jones), who concluded that he did not consider that there was a need for any structural change in the organisation of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That gives me the opportunity to reply to the specific question raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells), who asked what Labour policy was. The Minister will be desperately anxious to hear my answer because tomorrow morning he will have to reassure his advisers that, in the event of a forthcoming Labour victory, they will still be employed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I am happy to reassure him that we propose to retain the integrity of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. However, we propose to establish a food protection agency, an independent body answerable to the Cabinet Office. In direct reply to the question that the Minister asked my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), of course the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be responsible for replying to parliamentary questions in exactly the same way as the Secretary of State for the Environment replies to questions on the Countryside Commission.
I turn to more general matters by saying how much I have enjoyed the debate. I have been present throughout the debate and heard all the speeches. There is no doubt that it has been a full debate and, by and large, it has been a well-informed debate in which nine members of the Select Committee and hon. Members representing all parts of the United Kingdom have spoken. It has been noticeable that there has been agreement across the Floor of the House on several points, which I shall identify, because the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Weston- super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), may draw some comfort from them and may wish to discuss them
Column 830with Chairmen of other Select Committees. I hope that the Minister will note them because there are some matters which he should consider within his Department. I offer them not as partisan criticism but as an honest attempt to assist the Chairman of the Select Committee and the Minister.
The first matter of agreement is the way in which all hon. Members have congratulated the Chairman of the Select Committee on the presentation of his report and hon. Members on the Select Committee have commended him on his chairmanship and on the way in which he conducted proceedings. The report is a splendid example of good English. It was easy to read and to understand and that has assisted our deliberations.
Secondly, we all recognise that there is a potential hazard in egg consumption. We recognise that the hazard is minimal, but if public confidence is to be maintained the highest standards must be seen to apply and in that respect the Government carry a major
Thirdly, and following from that, if we accept that the Government have taken steps to ensure that the highest standards apply in Britain, many hon. Members have expressed a very real fear that imported eggs which will substitute for the disturbed market in Britain may well have been produced in less favourable conditions than those which apply to British egg producers. Obviously, that puts British producers and consumers at a disadvantage. The Minister has been asked several times what he intends to do about that. The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) gave the Minister a direct challenge. I do not expect the Minister to respond this evening, but I urge him to listen carefully to the real concerns that have been voiced. If he is to ensure that the protection that he is extending to domestically-produced eggs is successful, parallel measures must apply to imports. That point has united the House this evening. Fourthly, Conservative and Opposition Members recognise that the cuts in research during the past 12 months were ill-advised and the Government have to reconsider the extent to which they are withdrawing funding, or the way in which they attempt to define market-led research and identify what research is in the common good.
Fifthly, at the beginning of the debate the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) spoke about the service which had been done to the Select Committee system generally. I add my personal congratulations to the Chairman of the Select Committee on the way in which he conducted the affair of the missing hon. Member, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). No doubt we shall talk about her later. Clearly, a precedent has been established that hon. Members can be required to attend Select Committees. I am only sorry that the Committee did not come to the House and request the House to resolve that the hon. Lady be required to attend and answer to the satisfaction of the Committee. Having read very carefully her responses to the Committee and the questions that were asked but not answered, I felt that she was deliberately refusing to co-operate with the spirit of the questions. She has done the Select Committee system a disservice. To some extent, at least, that has been balanced by the way in which the Committee--with the sole exception of the hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry)--unanimously agreed to support the Chairman's request. That bodes well for the Select Committee system.
Column 831Finally, the Minister must accept criticism in the report directed against the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health. It is quite clear that when the Select Committee was reaching its conclusions partisan considerations could not have been uppermost in its mind because it had a Conservative majority. I am confident that it was not concerned with scoring political points but rather was concerned to learn the lessons of the events of the past 12 months, to ensure that the Government were aware of how the House of Commons perceived them and that the Government were sufficiently aware to prevent them from happening again.
As for the substance of the report, there is evidence that throughout the 1980s the Government were aware of the existence of a problem of salmonella enteritidis associated with eggs. They were certainly aware of hazards to human health posed by salmonella and therefore alarm bells should have been ringing during 1988 as the number of reported cases rose inexorably and dramatically. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) raised that matter with my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, who pointed out the evidence on page 1 of the report showing the marked increase in salmonella infection.
It was the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South who unleashed the storm with her now infamous statement that
"most of the egg production of this country, sadly, is now infected with salmonella".
It is my personal regret that she is not present this evening. By her absence, she has shown further her lack of concern for the proceedings of the House and for the damage which she caused the British egg industry and to her Government. I wish to put on record that I wrote to the hon. Lady this afternoon, letting her know that I intended making some remarks about her conduct. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has so perceptively noticed, she is not present. I understand that my hon. Friend has been engaged on other Commons business and has not been fully aware of our proceedings. If he wishes to intervene, I shall be happy to give way to him shortly, but first I wish to place on the record one particular point. I refer to the conduct of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to place different interpretations on the statements made by the former junior Health Minister last December. However charitably we may do so, there is no mistaking the impact that her statement was bound to have on British consumers, which was the point made by the hon. Member for Ynys Mo n. Here was a Government Health Minister who deliberately and consciously cultivated the art of publicity, and who decided, deliberately and consciously, to draw the attention of the British public, via the media, to what the Government perceived to be health problems. Whether they were associated with smoking, diet, AIDS or hypothermia, the hon. Lady deliberately drew those matters to public attention by the use of colourful, extravagant language.
The hon. Lady, speaking as a Government Health Minister, said that "most production of this country, sadly, is now infected". She did not say "some" production or "part" of the production, but "most" production. In her words, the majority of production was infected with salmonella. Last year saw a massive rise in salmonella poisoning, and the
Column 832public knew that it could kill. The public knew that there had been a dramatic rise in the incidence of salmonella poisoning throughout 1988 and it was small wonder that in December 1988, in the light of the junior Minister's statement, the public reacted as they did, and small wonder that the market for British eggs went through the floor.
In the early weeks of last December, the British egg industry suffered a 50 per cent. drop in consumption and, at times, an 80 per cent. drop in sales. Catastrophe loomed, redundancies were announced, and a whole industry was threatened. The Government had to act, and act they did--in a way that has brought commendations from the Select Committee. While we may have had our differences with the Government when their rescue package was announced and while, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields made clear, there were points of detail that we challenged, we unequivocally supported the Government's rescue package. The package won the commendation of the Select Committee and all right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken this evening have also commended the Government on the way in which the package was designed and on the way in which it operated to put a floor in the market.
Nearly £20 million was allocated from public funds with the objective of putting a floor in the market. That £20 million was the immediate and minimum sum that the British public were asked to guarantee as the cost of the then junior Minister's gaffe. We know now that it was a gaffe. The Select Committee concluded : "We found no evidence to support Mrs. Currie's assertion ... That statement should have been immediately corrected. It was a failure of Government and not just of a single Minister, that it was not corrected."
The Government could not respond. They were ill-prepared to deal with the crisis. They failed to respond to earlier warnings. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health had inadequate arrangements for monitoring public health standards and they fought a semi- public battle for their respective empires. Most critically of all, they did not understand the salmonella problem. Inadequate information existed-- and still exists--about salmonella's nature, extent, origins, method of transmission, and effects.
Unbelievably, the Government had cut the very research programmes that would have produced the answers. The Bristol research unit was to be closed. Staff of the state veterinary service had been cut by 20 per cent., and routine inspections of our food manufacturing industry by environmental health officers were a thing of the past. Against that background, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food could not respond adequately because it would have been forced to acknowledge its ignorance. If the Ministry had done that, it would have been compelled to acknowledge also the actions that were perpetuating that ignorance. Here was a disaster waiting to happen, and it did so in the form of the junior Health Minister.
We understand now that the junior Minister was not the innocent victim of the National Farmers Union machine or a valiant battler against the secrecy of the Whitehall battalions. She was neither of those things. She was a silly woman, petulant when exposed as such, and arrogant in her dealings with the Select Committee. Had it not been for timing even more inept than the Ministry's own handling of the matter, when the hon. Lady revealed
Column 833that she stood to gain £100,000 from selling her inside story for publication, she might never have appeared before the Select Committee. If any right hon. or hon. Member had any doubts about the propriety or constitutionality of a Select Committee summoning a Member of the House of Commons to appear before it, they would have been dispelled by the histrionics displayed by the hon. Lady up to and on 8 February. It is to the greater credit of the Select Committee's Chairman and members that they resisted that provocation.
The Government are culpable on two counts. If two Cabinet Ministers knew of the inaccuracies of the 3 December statement, as they should have done from their briefings, they should have acted swiftly, unequivocally and emphatically in requiring a retraction and public apology from their errant colleague. Statements in the House distancing Cabinet Ministers from junior Ministers were inadequate. The decision to put up a paid public servant to try to distance the Whitehall machine from a public political statement was also inadequate. There was only one way in which that sin of commission could have been corrected--by the Minister responsible for making a public statement acknowledging that she was wrong, that her statement was wrong, and that the advice that she gave the British public was wrong.
The Secretary of State for Health's refusal to ensure that his junior Minister took the appropriate action and his public refusal to dissociate himself from his junior Minister and to dismiss her make him complicit in that sin of commission-- [Interruption.] I am glad that I am striking a chord with my hon. Friends. I am not inviting my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover to intervene, but if he wishes to do so, I shall be happy to let him. It is clear that neither of the Ministers understood, and certainly did not indicate, that their concern for their political and office interests was more pressing than their concern for the public good.
During the mounting crisis, the Minister of Agriculture signally failed to take preventive or remedial action. He could have introduced routine monitoring of laying flocks, but he did not. He could have prevented the sale of eggs from flocks that were known to be contaminated, but he did not. He could have commissioned further research to gain greater understanding of the problem, but he did not. He could have closed processing plants that were known by him to be producing contaminated feedstuffs, but he did not. Nor did he prosecute persistent offenders as the law empowered him to do. The Select Committee stated :
"It is a severe criticism of MAFF that a public health problem in eggs was required before they saw fit to act".
That is the conclusion that I invite the House to endorse. The Select Committee report concluded :
"We welcome those steps which the Government has taken during the course of our inquiry and expect that, with full implementation of the above recommendations, public confidence can be restored in the safety and purity of eggs."
I hope that it can be. I must say, however, that I place rather less faith in the Government's proclamation than does the Select Committee.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Would my hon. Friend accept that the steps taken by the Government have been directed exclusively at poultry farmers? The manufacturers of poultry farming equipment have suffered grave losses and a lack of orders and are facing
Column 834redundancies, yet the Government have consistently refused to do anything for that industry, which they have damaged in addition to the poultry farmers.
Mr. Davies : Yes. My hon. Friend mentions the consequences on manufacturing industry, which might be a constituency matter, resulting from the recession in the poultry industry. Far be it from me to encourage others to litigate, but I believe that legal cases are outstanding against the former Health Minister.
Mr. Davies : I agree with my hon. Friend. I assure him that if the roles were reversed and I was standing at the other Dispatch Box and my hon. Friend was in his usual place below the Gangway, I should invite him to the Ministry in Whitehall place first thing tomorrow morning. I should say to him, as I am wont to do in these matters, "Bob, you just come along to the MAFF office at 9 o'clock in the morning and present that case to me, tell me how your constituents are suffering and what you expect me to do and I guarantee that the full resources of the Whitehall machine will swing into action behind your interests." I invite my hon. Friend to test the Minister when he replies to the debate to see whether he gets the reply that he now knows he would get from me if I were the Minister and not a member of the Opposition.
The Minister never fails to trumpet the 17 initiatives that have emerged from that hive of activity which passes for a MAFF press office in Whitehall place. If there was one note of discord, it was heard earlier in the debate when my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields was challenging the Minister about the effectiveness of those 17 measures.
For the sake of accuracy, let us put the Government's position on record. They recognised the problem in December and said that they would introduce a financial rescue package to put a floor under the egg industry. That has worked and we have all commended the Government for it. But then they said that it could never happen again. They said that they would introduce a package. MAFF said so in early December. By a process of planted parliamentary questions, statements to the House and speeches in debates on this and other occasions, various spokesmen for the Ministry as well as their glossy press handouts have all said, "We have acted--we have introduced 17 new measures that will all fit together to ensure that all sectors of the poultry industry, from the processors of protein to the millers of food, to the breeders of laying flocks and those who are responsible for egg production, right down to the packers and those who guarantee the freshness of deliveries to the door will be tightly regulated and never again will the problem of salmonella occur." The Minister has stated that clearly and unambiguously in parliamentary answers and press releases. When he was challenged earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields he was happy to jump up and say, "We have the 17 initiatives, we have acted, what more can you expect." He flapped his wings but he did not quite take off. On 18 January and again on 3 March, in reply to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, the Minister listed his comprehensive programme for action, being his Department's response to the salmonella in eggs affair. The details were less impressive than the presentation would have us believe.
Column 835The 17 measures included five guidelines, being voluntary codes of practice, for producers. Last year, statutory codes regulating the rendering of protein feedstuffs were in force. On several occasions Ministry inspections revealed that they were producing and distributing salmonella-infested faeces. On many occasions those plants were reinspected, but nothing was done. On a third inspection, 50 per cent. of those reinspected were found still to be producing infected feedstuffs.
The Ministry is empowered to prosecute. The regulations do not say that the Ministry should send an ADAS adviser for a quiet chat. They do not say that the Ministry shall simply advise. We hope that the Ministry will advise in advance, to prevent a problem arising in the first place, and I appreciate that a prosecution might not be undertaken in the first instance. But those concerned must be told, "People are dying from salmonella poisoning. A whole industry has been threatened by your actions. If we come back a second time and you are still producing infected feedstuffs, we will prosecute." I cannot understand how, on a third occasion, such plants could be found to be breaking the law yet there is a refusal to prosecute. That happens with a statutory code. Now the Minister is saying that, of the 17 initiatives, five are voluntary codes. If he does not enforce a statutory code, what confidence can we have that these voluntary codes, without the backing of law, will be enforced? We can have no confidence at all.
Thus, five of the measures are merely guidelines. Five are orders, but they will have statutory force. We are now well into March and there is no sign yet of those orders. They have not yet been laid before Parliament. All the intitiatives of which the Minister has spoken and all the information that he has been trailing, through planted questions--and all the information that he gave to the Select Committee about these brave initiatives--have yet to appear. The five with teeth have not yet been laid.
How on earth can we, in debating the Select Committee's report, form a judgment when we do not even know what the orders will contain? It is all very well for the Minister to say, "We shall introduce orders to do this or that," but we are entitled to reserve our judgment until we see them and find out if they get the approval of Parliament. Until the orders have been debated and we have been able to assess their efficacy--indeed, until we know whether they have the approval of Parliament--we cannot assess their worth.
Of the 17 new initiatives, therefore, five are voluntary codes and five are orders which have not yet been laid before Parliament. It is not an impressive record, and it does not get better. Three of the 17 initiatives are changes in administrative procedures. The Government of the day have been empowered since 1975 to make such changes. Throughout the 1980s, when the problem of salmonella was building up--and critically last year, when the Government were receiving all the information from their advisers about the build-up of salmonella, about the 17,000 who had become ill and about people dying--the Government, and in particular the Minister, had no need to wait for a junior Minister at the Department of Health to blow the gaffe.
Column 836The Government did not have to wait for the floor to fall through the industry or for warnings from any of the independent bodies that have been maligned in this debate. They had the powers to act--by the stroke of a pen. Without recourse to Parliament they could have taken action.
The 17 measures are not adding up to much : five voluntary codes, five orders not laid, and three administrative measures that could have been taken previously. In addition, one order was in force in February, and one campaign has been launched to educate the public in the hygienic handling of food. That is not bad--we have got one out of 15 so far. The more observant of my hon. Friends will recall that we are dealing with 17 initiatives, not 15. That leaves two that still have to be accounted for.
Every day for the past week I have been to the Vote Office asking for a copy of the Zoonoses Order-- [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover asks, "What is that?" [Laughter.] That is what I heard, and I know that my hon. Friend would deprecate any suggestion that we should use anything but the most proper language. I asked the Vote Office for a copy of the Zoonoses Order ; I asked the Library for a copy ; I asked the Minister's own press department for a copy. They all said, "We do not know what the Zoonoses Order is." [Interruption.] Yes, that is what they said. Actually, they said, "We would like to give it to you, Mr. Davies, but we do not know what it is."
Just before this debate I was fortunate, through a friend who is also a friend of the Minister, to obtain a photocopy of the Zoonoses Order 1989, No. 285, which is not available to any other Member of the House or, incidentally, to the poultry industry which is supposed to be applying it. Apparently the order was made on 28 February, to come into force on 1 March. If we were charitable and assumed that the one-day debate did not reflect any degree of urgency on the Minister's part, if we were charitable and assumed that the Ministry actually knew what it was doing and had laid these orders as part of a carefully programmed campaign, we could believe what we have been told. The fact of the matter is that the Zoonoses Order 1989, No. 285, is not required ; the Ministry already has power, under the 1975 legislation, to implement what it is now legislating for. If we were to have any confidence in the Ministry's handling of the situation, if we were to believe that the Minister had learnt the lessons of the events of 1988, we could reasonably expect the 17 initiatives announced by the Ministry to amount to a little more than a few promises and one botched order that the people responsible for implementing it have not yet even received. So much for the Minister's much-vaunted 17-point initiative. That order--the only one with teeth--has not yet been tabled. It was supposed to be implemented on 1 March--a week ago--but it has not yet been tabled. Copies are not available, and no one in the poultry industry has yet had sight of it.
Hon. Members on the Government side are shaking their heads as if to suggest that what I am saying could not be true. I invite them-- [Interruption.] If they are so unconcerned about these matters, it would be understandable that they should not appear for agriculture debates, but if they have come along to lend support to the Minister I should have thought they would at least have satisfied themselves as to the credibility of what the Minister is