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Mr. Wilson : Does the Minister agree that if he wants the best and most independent scientific advice, by definition any scientists who are also paid by the food industry should not be employed by the Government to give advice?
The fourth essential element is decisive action, which could be legislative or advisory on the basis of the expert advice that we have received, and sometimes further research is called for. The fifth essential element is the provision of full information and guidance to the public. Indeed, we publish so much that often the problem is to get even a small proportion of it over. My hon. Friend the
Column 348Parliamentary Secretary illustrated that graphically in the last debate. The sixth essential element is proper monitoring and enforcement to ensure that legislative obligations are carried out by all in the food chain.
I have available to me substantial resources to carry out these tasks. In my Department I have more than 500 staff engaged in work on policies that relate to consumer protection. Many of them are highly qualified specialists in one branch of science or another. They provide the sound scientific basis to our assessment, enforcement and research activities.
As the House by now will know--this is the answer to the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson)--we are assisted by a wide range of expert committees covering pretty well every area of food matters--to which we have just added the Richmond committee on the microbiological safety of food--to advise us on the many technological developments that are now such an important feature of modern food production. Together we have available some hundreds of independent scientists and experts drawn from the universities, medical schools, research bodies, industry, consumer backgrounds and so on--all leading experts in their particular fields and chosen for their experience and the breadth of knowledge they can bring to bear. They assist us in the assessment of risks of all kinds that are faced by any modern food producing industry, and my colleagues and I rely heavily on their advice. The Opposition keep mentioning one or two scientists. I have been emphasising that we have hundreds of scientists available to us. All aspects of the subject are considered, expertly and in considerable depth, and I stress again the scientists' independence. The reports that are produced are published. In the case of the steering group on food surveillance there have been no fewer than 25 reports in recent years, covering a wide range of subjects. Each of them is an authoritative scientific document on the subject under consideration. I repeat that the reports are published. But we do not just listen. We act, and we act promptly. In the last six months or so we have announced decisions on salmonella, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, mineral hydrocarbons and aldrin, and given advice on a number of other subjects. Often the action goes comparatively unnoticed in the media, but it is taken notice of by the industry and the consumer is therefore protected.
Mr. Conal Gregory (York) rose
Mr. Gregory : In acknowledging, as the Opposition did not, that some £20 million was spent last year in support of food safety, I think that any hon. Member would accept that there is independent advice which the Department uses skilfully, but that it is implemented at the sharp end by environmental health officers. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he will issue central guidelines to the environmental health officers? Otherwise they will go off at different tangents and will interpret the expert advice in different ways which could be misleading to the public. I know that that is not my right hon. Friend's intention.
Column 349One interesting example of the action that we take relates to certain chemical substances in cling film. Following analysis, our scientists in the Ministry advised that there was a small risk of some leaching to the food contained therein. In immediate consultation with the industries the substances were changed and even any potential slightest risk to the consumer was removed. All this demonstrates that there is no complacency whatever, only constant vigilance.
With the rapid changes in consumer habits these days, including the trend to fast and convenience foods and one-stop weekly shopping on the one hand, and the rapid developments in food technology and processes on the other, there can never be any cause for complacency. I point that out to the hon. Member for South Shields. Most of the Governments of Western Europe, the United States Government and others are finding new salmonella problems with particular types--in the end we are talking about two types out of more than 2,000 strains--with listeria and with campylobacter at present.
As for botulism, with which the hon. Member for South Shields began his speech, if its continued existence is thought to be a sign of failure--the word in the Opposition motion--then it must be said that we in this country have achieved a measure of success that most other countries would be only too pleased to emulate.
The current outbreak, highly regrettable as it is, is nevertheless only the tenth in more than 65 years. The citizens of such countries as the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, France and the Netherlands--often held up, and rightly, as examples, like ourselves, of countries with high safety records and standards--are many times more likely to suffer from botulism than we are here.
I heard what the hon. Member for South Shields said about Professor Lacey and his book. Professor Lacey did not predict a botulism outbreak. In fact, the evidence to date of the present botulism outbreak points to a canned hazelnut preparation. Professor Lacey stated that
"the risk of food poisoning by canned food is tiny."
The action that we have taken on salmonella and BSE is typical of the serious and determined way in which we pursue our
As the House knows, the Government have adopted to date a comprehensive package of 19 measures to tackle this new salmonella problem in order to minimise the potential risk to public health.
Mr. MacGregor : It was 17, but we are constantly doing what we believe is right to add to them. I am sorry that the hon. Member for South Shields cannot keep up with our pace on this matter. One of the 19 measures is the food safety guidance leaflet. I was extremely sorry to hear the hon. Member for South Shields, who is normally very responsible in these matters, say that that was shifting the blame--or words to that effect--on to the consumer. He knows that research has shown that, because of the modern developments to which I have referred--such as weekly one-stop shopping--and the new food technologies, much of the risk of food poisoning can take place after the manufacturing process. Therefore, any responsible Government should give advice to consumers as to how, at their end of the food chain, they can protect themselves from food poisoning. I cannot imagine why the hon. Gentleman denigrates our
Column 350action of supplying the food safety leaflet. That is a sign of gross irresponsibility. I believe that he has been proved wrong by the fact that it is a best seller, and we shall almost certainly have to reprint it shortly. It shows that we are meeting a positive and, I think, a desirable demand.
Dr. David Clark : I noticed that the Minister moved quickly away from the 17 salmonella measures. He knows that he announced 17, but in a written answer, dated 19 June, that I received from the Parliamentary Secretary I was told that two of the key issues still wait to be laid before the House. When will we get the document--three months later?
Mr. MacGregor : I have not moved off the subject yet, so I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. I am still dealing with the 19 measures. We have announced all the measures. We have nearly all of them in place and we are carrying all the others through with all due speed. As he knows, some of them require consultation and then parliamentary action. We have announced that we are taking 19 specific measures on the new salmonella problem.
Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West) : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the latest information from the public health laboratory shows that, despite a recent increase in the consumption of chicken and poultry generally, the incidence of salmonella has dropped considerably? Does that not show that the measures that have been introduced by my right hon. Friend and the industry have been a great success?
Mr. MacGregor : As my hon. Friend knows, like other countries, we were faced with a new problem. It is obviously encouraging if there is a change in the trend of cases. We must maintain our vigilance, and the measures remain important. I do not believe that the measures will fully bite for some time--not until they take full effect. I want to be clear about that.
We have taken those 19 measures at all possible stages in the chain from the animal feeding stuffs level, through breeding flocks and hatcheries, to laying flocks and on into the home.
All in all, we are making extremely good progress in introducing those important measures in Britain. No other country in the world has such an impressive range of measures to tackle this exceptionally complex problem.
On the totally new disease of BSE, the moment our veterinary scientists identified what the problem was I set up the Southwood committee ; then stopped the feed protein source of the disease, again as soon as our scientists--they were ours--concluded that this was the most likely source ; and acted immediately on all the interim and final recommendations of that committee.
Last week I announced that further measures would be taken. Those will ensure that brain and spinal cord, together with certain other bovine offals, cannot be used for human consumption in any way. I can assure the House that if the scientific evidence and advice suggests that other actions are needed we shall take them. In resource terms the commitment to BSE alone is likely to be in excess of £6 million this year. That, too, is a demonstration of how speedily and responsibly we act.
The emergence of new diseases, like the rapid rate of technological change in the food chain, places increasing demands on the flexibility of the system. It was for that
Column 351reason among others that we felt that it was desirable to undertake a substantial review of the existing food legislation, which has generally served us well but which needs to be appropriate for all the demands of the 1990s, including developments on the European Community front. I suspect that the hon. Member for South Shields is with me on that.
That is why we have been undertaking a major consultation exercise with over 500 organisations, including many consumer groups, and, as a result, have concluded that the law should be adjusted in the light of changing circumstances. We shall be bringing forward new legislation as soon as the parliamentary timetable permits. I would expect new legislation to include strengthened controls in the areas of food hygiene--notably powers to require food premises to register with their local authority and powers to require the training of those who handle food ; the introduction of emergency control orders to improve our ability to act in food emergencies, although, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we have already taken some action in the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, introduced by the Government, which enabled me to deal with the Chernobyl situation ; and powers to control novel foods and processes as well as a whole range of other changes designed to make food law and its enforcement more effective today to meet any new challenges that may arise. Just as new technical problems can arise from new processes, so technology can give us new weapons in our armoury to enhance food safety and consumer protection. Let me deal with one such new weapon which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I want to begin by stressing that it is only one of many weapons in our armoury ; it is not the panacea that the hon. Gentleman claimed it would be. In doing so, I hope that I shall answer all his points on food irradiation. The House is aware that last year on 4 February we announced that the Government accepted in principle that the ban on irradiated food should be lifted, provided that-- this was an important proviso--the proper control framework could be established. Therefore, we set up a working party to consider all the issues related to that control system and to make recommendations, and the House knows that I recently received its report.
I am today publishing that report. Copies are being made available in the Vote Office and in the Library. Based on the recommendations in the report, the Government intend to make available to the consumer and to the food industry the option of that additional measure for protecting certain foods. As I shall elaborate in a moment, there will be a number of opportunities for the House to consider that further in full. But I think it would be helpful if today I outline some of the key points.
First, I want to stress that the Government are basing their decision fundamentally on food safety and consumer grounds--on food safety, that irradiation has a useful contribution to make--a contribution, not the total answer--to the reduction of food--borne disease in certain products, and in some cases better than by other means ; and for consumers, provided that we have the proper control and information framework, that it would be wrong to deprive consumers of the freedom to choose
Column 352food treated by that safety method if they wish to avail themselves of it. It will not be thrust upon anyone. I repeat, it will not be thrust upon anyone.
I know that some have drawn attention to the ability of the process to extend the shelf life of some fruits by delaying their ripening processes. That, too, is a consumer benefit in that what the housewife buys will last longer in the home. But that is not why the Government are proposing to legalise this process, and I wish to underline that. It was considerations of food safety that were predominant in reaching our decision.
It may be helpful if I remind the House of the background to the subject. There is a mistaken impression that food irradiation is something new about which we ought to learn much more before permitting its use in this country, but that is far from being the case. The first patent on food irradiation was taken out as long ago as 1921, so it saw the light of day well before the birth of most current right hon. and hon. Members of this House, myself included. Considerable research on the process has been undertaken over more than 40 years, and scientists tell me that it has been subject to much closer scrutiny worldwide than any other food process. The safety of the process was established long ago by distinguished authorities of unimpeachable international standing. Top level joint expert committees of the principal international agencies, including the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, carried out in- depth safety evaluations over a period of years in the 1970s and confirmed in a report in 1980 that food irradiation up to an overall average dose of 10 kilogray is safe and introduces no special nutritional or microbilogical problems. That report was adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission in 1983. Similar conclusions were reached following full assessments by other national and international bodies. The process's safety, for example, was confirmed by the European Community's Scientific Committee for Food and by the United State's Food and Drugs Administration.
Nevertheless, we adopted a thoroughly careful attitude and put in hand our own independent expert assessment. In 1982 we established the Advisory Committee on Irradiated and Novel Foods under the chairmanship of Sir Arnold Burgen, Master of Darwin college, Cambridge. The committee comprised distinguished specialists in all aspects of the subject. Its report, published in 1986, concluded that if correctly applied and up to the level of dose stipulated in the international research of 10 kilogray, irradiation is an effective and efficient form of food preservation treatment.
The committee was satisfied as to the safety and wholesomeness of the food that would result from irradiation and made it clear that for all practical purposes
Column 353there would be no change in the low level of radioactivity that food naturally contains. In 1987 the committee was reconvened to consider scientific responses to its report and, having done so, reaffirmed its conclusions.
I set out that history to make absolutely clear one basic point--that the safety of food irradiation has been assessed repeatedly over the years by people both in this country and abroad whose highly specialised training and experience best qualifies them to assess all aspects of the technique. The process has been cleared through the most comprehensive set of evaluations.
No qualifications have been expressed, and no areas of safety remain outstanding. That is demonstrated by the number of countries that already allow use of the process. It is permitted in 35 countries around the world, and is already in operation in 21 of them. Those countries include the United States and four member states of the European Community. It may come as a surprise that we too permit irradiaton and have done so for the past 20 years or more. Throughout that time, irradiated food has been supplied to a limited number of cancer patients who, by reason of their disease or treatment, are at high risk of infection. We have recognised that those vulnerable members of our society, who require the most carefully controlled and safest diet that we can secure, have found it through irradiated food.
What are the advantages of irradiation for consumers generally? I shall deal shortly with the question of choice but first I must set the important scene of safety as a whole. The World Health Organisation is clear that by killing or greatly reducing the number of micro-organisms naturally present in food, irradiation has a useful contribution to make in reducing some-- and I stress some--food-borne disease. Obviously, it cannot be used to treat all food products because in some cases it can affect taste and other qualities. Nevertheless, it is important in reducing some food-borne disease.
Irradiation has, for example, been shown to be effective in dealing with bacteria such as salmonella, listeria and campylobacter. It is not suitable for all foodstuffs, as I have already emphasised, but it has proved its value as a treatment for poultry meat. It is so used already in France and other countries, and the BMA's recent publication "Infection Control" mentions its particular effectiveness for the purpose. Some shellfish can also be successfully treated. Second, for certain produce such as herbs and spices irradiation can be used to destroy insects, pests and bacterial contamination in place of the existing chemical fumigation methods, about some of which there are concerns on health grounds. For example, the chemical ethylene oxide, which is used for that purpose, is now banned in many countries of the European Community and will shortly no longer be available for use. Manufacturers and consumers need some means of being able to continue to make herbs and spices available without infestation.
All this is extending consumer choice, not damaging it. It is an effective way of dealing with some bacteria and bugs, but of course the essential pre -condition is a proper control mechanism. The Food Act gives the possibility of providing for the registration of irradiation facilities by
Column 354local authorities. The Government have concluded, however, that it is preferable to have a full licensing system under central Government control, rather than through local authorities. Closer and more specialised supervision will be achieved through the concentration of the powers by central administration than if the responsibility is diffused. This will permit detailed inspection by specialists and the imposition of precise conditions with the granting of licences. It will mean delaying the introduction of food irradiation until we can obtain more extensive powers in the new food Bill, but we think it right to do so.
Conditional upon the licence will be the maintenance of clear and full records, which will be regularly inspected and will allow for the tracing of consignments treated and the verification, through the recording instrument readings, of the dose applied. A further provision will be a requirement that full documentation must accompany each consignment leaving the irradiated plant, so that recipients of irradiated food at any point in the distribution chain are aware of the treatment that has been given.
Apart from inspection of the documentation and of the measuring instruments --the dosimeters--the premises would also be subject to the normal local authority controls on food hygiene. It would be necessary for local authorities to satisfy themselves that good manufacturing practices were being followed and that, in particular, there was proper segregation of treated and untreated foodstuffs and the possibility of contamination after treatment was avoided. For imported supplies it will be necessary for us to make arrangements to check that the control systems applied and the standards achieved by countries wishing to export to the United Kingdom are equivalent to the controls and standards to be applied in this country. If the European Community's proposal goes ahead, action will of course follow on a Community basis, but, whether Community or national arrangements need to be made, we are quite clear that proper reassurances must be obtained.
As important as the control framework is that consumers should be able to make an informed choice, so that those who do not want irradiated food can be assured that they are not buying it.
Mr. MacGregor : There will be plenty of opportunities for the hon. Gentleman to speak. In any case, I am about to give the answer : making consumers aware whether they are buying irradiated food means labelling.
I assure the House that the Government will insist on a firm requirement for full and clear labelling of all irradiated food and listed ingredients. We want wording that will be clearly understood, and the options that we have in mind, are "irradiated" and "treated with ionising radiation".
Column 355I am sure that the House will want to debate this issue in full, and as we must seek new powers there will be plenty of opportunities to do so. There may also be a chance to debate it before the summer recess if time can be found to consider European Community document No. 10377/88 on this subject, which the European Community Scrutiny Committee has recommended for debate. There will thus be many occasions to respond to the concerns and to dispel the myths, but today I should like to deal with the two most common ones. First, it is argued that the treatment should not be allowed in the absence of a detention test that can confirm its use. There are plenty of views to the contrary. The World Health Organisation did not consider that necessary ; nor did Codex or the United States Food and Drug Administration. Moreover, our own advisory committee gave particular attention to the point. It concluded that, while a detection test could be a useful supplement to a control system based on licensing and documentation, such as we shall have, it was not necessary for the satisfactory operation of controls. Furthermore, none of the 21 countries already allowing irradiation and operating control systems around the world considered it necessary to wait for the availability of a diagnostic method. The crucial factor is the control system, but given that a diagnostic method could be a useful supplement we shall continue to fund the research work that we are doing on this.
Second, it is argued that irradiation can somehow be misused to make bad food good. I am advised that this is simply nonsense. Irradiation cannot improve appearance, it cannot disguise taste, it cannot mask unpleasant odours. If food is not of acceptable microbiological standard, then these factors will give it away. Food irradiation will not save it.
Moreover, we intend to provide for the examination of food prior to treatment, and we shall be providing that food that does not meet the normal acceptable standards of the industry shall not be irradiated. It will remain an offence to sell or offer for sale unfit food, whether irradiated or not.
Therefore, I commend the working party's report to the House and the Government's decisions upon it. I repeat that irradiation is not a panacea for food safety. I do not, and never will, suggest that it is. It is only one weapon in our large armoury. All the other measures I have talked about today and on other occasions continue to be important parts of the whole surveillance, regulatory and legislative framework that we have to ensure the highest standards of food safety. However, it does offer for certain products a further and successful way of enhancing safety. It can provide clear consumer benefits. In our view, it is now wrong to deprive the food producer and the consumer of the free choice to avail themselves of it, if they wish to do so, and it is on that basis that I am making this announcement today.
Let me underline that point once and for all. Consumers in Britain, under a Conservative Government, enjoy a right to safety, a right to be informed and a right to choose. Irradiated food is safe, irradiated food will be properly labelled and consumers will have the right to buy it and the right to refuse to buy it. Only an irresponsible Government, neglectful of consumer interests, would deny
Column 356British consumers the same protection as is already afforded to consumers in over 20 other countries. All this demonstrates the responsible and carefully considered approach of the Government to food safety matters. I can hardly say the same about some of the allegations of the Opposition.
The other day the hon. Member for South Shields alleged on "The World this Weekend"--and he has said it again, in part, today--that they have documentary evidence--repeated examples, he said--of seafood coming into this country, being declared as unfit for human consumption and then being exported, irradiated and reimported back here. He said that these companies had actually been flouting the law and that
"the Government has known about it, has turned a blind eye and indeed appear to be encouraging these companies to break the law." These are serious allegations. I shall therefore be quite fair with the hon. Member for South Shields--and, I hope, quite clear. I should be concerned about any allegations of companies flouting the law. I have therefore checked whether we knew about them. We did not. I have made clear publicly that I would be happy to look at any evidence that the hon. Gentleman can give us.
In the same programme the hon. Gentleman said that he would pass this information on to me. That was 11 days ago. So far I have not received anything from him, but I hope that I shall do so shortly. [Interruption.]
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) rose --
Mr. MacGregor : The hon. Gentleman said that there had been "repeated examples" of seafood coming into this country, and he said that they were recent repeated examples. The only allegations that I can find are in early-day motion 950, signed by a number of his hon. Friends, making allegations about named companies. Is that the evidence that the hon. Gentleman had in mind? I should be very interested to know whether that is the evidence.
Dr. David Clark : I did not pass it on to the Minister previously-- [Interruption.] If hon. Members will be patient for a little longer I shall explain why. Three years ago we passed information to the Minister's predecessor-- [Interruption.] Hon. Members must let me finish--including the certificates of irradiation from Gammaster. The Minister's predecessor refused to act upon that information. I have the information and I shall pass it on to the Minister. I made it quite clear today that I would pass it on to the Minister, but I wanted to make sure that it was on the record in the House before I did so. Only by doing so could I guarantee a response from the Minister. I think that the Minister will look into the matter seriously in view of the Government's record. That is why I did not pass it on to him.
Mr. MacGregor : That is a frightfully feeble answer. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, it suggests that he is more interested in grabbing headlines than in dealing with serious issues responsibly. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that there was one case, involving Young's, in January 1985. The company received a severe warning at the time and there is no evidence that anything has happened involving that company since. That is the only case of which I and my Ministry know. That was only one example four years ago and the hon. Gentleman has never suggested otherwise.
Column 357The hon. Gentleman said on "The World this Weekend" that we had evidence of repeated examples. We have no such evidence ; therefore, I had to turn to the early-day motion.
Some of the companies named are Dutch, and some of the imputed actions referred to in the early-day motion took place in other countries. It is not for me to comment on those since they would be matters for other authorities. But let me tell the hon. Gentleman that if this is his evidence, all three British food importing firms referred to have firmly denied the stories, and indeed my Department's regular contacts with the authorities in the Netherlands have provided no information that would support the Opposition's claims.
I repeat that I am ready to look at any evidence. But I think it is disreputable to name companies in an early-day motion without firm evidence, and I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has firmly, on the Order Paper, rejected the allegation made against one of the firms. I shall look at any evidence, but ultimately the best guarantee of dealing with the issue and ensuring that irradiation is used responsibly and properly is to have the new control system that we have in place.
I ask the House to contrast the difference in the approach of the two parties--the Government's careful, thorough consideration based on the fullest scientific evidence, the establishment of a proper control framework, making a very useful device for food safety available to consumers who want it, and the irresponsible allegations by the Opposition.
I turn briefly to some of the other charges made by the hon. Gentleman in his speech today. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary will deal with one or two other matters in winding up. I shall turn first to research and development on which the hon. Gentleman concentrated and in which he knows I have a particular interest.
I make no apology for the Government's approach to the funding of near market research and development because I am sure that it makes sense. It is right that the Government should review their priorities on research and development across the board from time to time, and that is what we have been doing. It is right to ask the agrochemical and farming industries to fund the near market development work, that is that which is close to commercial exploitation--as they do in any other industry. That work is to their benefit--they can better assess the commercial possibilities and are more likely that way to carry the results through to full development in the market place--and it avoids duplication. We estimate the industry itself is funding more than £300 million a year of R and D, most of it probably near market.
But that is a different matter from research on food safety, which is not affected. Indeed we are now spending over £10 million a year on food safety and nutrition research, and it has been steadily increasing. It is noteworthy that expenditure on food research has more than doubled in real terms under this Government and since the Opposition left office.
Last week's decision by the Agricultural and Food Research Council to consolidate the work of its Institute of Food Research at its Norwich and Reading sites has to be seen in this context. The near market research from which Government support is being withdrawn at the food research institute is work on eating quality, flavours, shelf life and non-food safety aspects of food processing. That
Column 358work is of interest to the industry and we hope it will fund it, but it is not related to food safety or other public good issues and I want to be absolutely clear on this point.
So far as food safety is concerned, the decision to restructure the IFR means : more scientists working together on food research at Reading and Norwich, in a more focused way, using the most sophisticated equipment and technology available ; an enhanced capacity to deal with a wide range of micro-organisms, including salmonella, listeria and those causing botulism ; and increased funding for research in these and other food safety areas. In Norwich and Reading, the United Kingdom will continue to possess a world -class Institute of Food Research. It will ensure a sound science base which can address and resolve issues of concern to the consumer, the housewife, the man in the street, the producer and industry. For food safety there are real, positive gains.
Had time permitted, I should have liked to deal with a number of other issues relating to early-day motions and my hon. Friend will try to deal with some of them when he replies to the debate. Finally, I want to touch on one matter not raised by the hon. Gentleman this afternoon, pesticides. The Government have taken more action than any other on pesticides. We have a proper statutory system of approval, registration and control for the first time. No one has the right to sell a pesticide, to store it, advertise it or use it unless it has been given safety clearance and approval by Ministers. That is all in the interests of consumers and users. Before there is any possibility of approval the company has to have tested the safety of the product in terms of health and the environment and its efficacy in use. And there is thorough independent, scientific evaluation.
An independent committee, the Advisory Committee for Pesticides, makes a scientific assessment.
Detailed monitoring takes place thereafter, not least by the working party on pesticides residues. Regular sampling takes place. From time to time concern about pesticides emerges and it is important to set out what we have in place.
Such a control system needs to be completed with an enforcement regime and a policy of public information and guidance in which our agricultural inspectorate plays a crucial part.
Against the background of a control system which is as comprehensive as we can devise and as expert as we can get I have to report to the House an extraordinary incident which occurred last week.
A few days before that, my officials became aware that the Labour party was advertising in one of its magazines two insecticides. My officials established to their satisfaction that the products advertised had no approval, and that the advertisement showed no regard to the legal requirements. Without reference to Ministers my officials did what they would do to any other trader who appeared to be breaking the law, and issued a notice requiring that the Labour party ceased selling non-approved products, and ensured that advertisements observe the established regulations.
Column 359Imagine my astonishment when the first I heard of this was, via the press, a letter from the general secretary of the Labour party demanding that I repudiate the actions of my officials immediately. So there we have it from the party professing such environmental and safety concern--one law for the Labour party on pesticide regulations and another for everybody else ; great moral huffing and puffing as far as everyone else is concerned and unrighteous indignation when the law is applied to the Labour party.
The hon. Gentleman talked about deregulation. It is the Labour party's version of deregulation. For the Labour party it means deregulation beyond the law. That sums it up.
The Opposition spokesman has admitted that his party came to food issues very late. He said that it was a huge field that the Opposition had neglected. The Opposition are willing to throw about wild allegations without proper assessment of the facts and throw their weight about to get me to ask my officials to bend the law in their favour. The Government devote very substantial resources to food safety matters and give them high priority, have a well-established set of mechanisms for obtaining the best scientific evidence and advice, take effective action promptly and give the highest priority to consumer protection and consumer choice. That is why I have no hesitation in commending the Government amendment and urging the House to reject the Opposition motion.
Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy) : In a long and dismal procession of incompetent Ministers who have paraded themselves before the House in recent months we have surely heard one of the worst this afternoon. The only "green" thing about the Minister's Department is probably the tie worn by the Parliamentary Secretary.
Two aspects stand out from today's debate : first, the woeful incompetence of the Ministries entrusted with responsibility for public health in this country ; secondly, the need to define clearly the objectives that we should be pursuing. The failure of the relevant Ministries is most clearly shown by the disjointed, defensive and reactive approach adopted by the Minister this afternoon. I shall pass over his speech, except for a reference to the irradiation of food, which is a disturbing development. In passing, I should say that I am sponsored by the Co-operative movement and thus represent the major food producer in this country. It has come out clearly against irradiation. I hope that other hon. Members who speak today will also declare their interests and tell us which of them are in the pockets of big business and which represent the interests of the farmers. People should not imagine for a moment that Conservative Members will not be speaking from prejudice or self-interest, just like the lap dogs in the Ministry who are in the pockets of the agricultural companies and of food production interests. Speaking of lap dogs, the Minister's parliamentary private secretary might be called the rottweiler of big business, although, come to think of it, rottweiler is not a good description of the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart).
We must examine the whole of food policy, not just parts of it. The Minister selected a few non-diseased trees from the wood and concentrated on them, but we must