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House of Commons

Thursday 29 June 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Associated British Ports

(No. 2) Bill-- By Order Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question--[23 May] --That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Debate to be resumed on Thursday 6 July.

British Railways Bill

London Regional Transport

(No. 2) Bill--

Bromley London Borough Council(Crystal Palace) Bill

Orders for consideration read.

To be considered on Thursday 6 July.

Buckinghamshire County Council Bill

[Lords](By Order)

London Local Authorities Bill

[Lords](By Order) Orders for consideration read.

To be considered on Thursday 6 July.

London Regional Transport (Penalty Fares) Bill

[Lords] (By Order)

Order read for resuming debate on Question--[28 June] --That the Bill be now considered.

Debate to be resumed on Thursday 6 July.

London Underground (Victoria) Bill

(By Order)

British Film Institute Southbank Bill

(By Order)

Vale of Glamorgan (Barry Harbour) Bill

[Lords] (By Order)

Hayle Harbour Bill

[Lords] (By Order)

Queen Mary and Westfield College Bill

[Lords] Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 6 July.

King's Cross Railways Bill


That the Committee on the King's Cross Railways Bill have leave to visit and inspect the areas affected by the proposed works, provided that no evidence shall be taken in the course of such visit and that any party who has made an appearance before the Committee be permitted to attend by his Counsel, agent or other representative.-- [The Chairman of Ways and Means.]

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Oral Answers to Questions


Fur Farming

1. Dr. Kim Howells : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last discussed with representatives of the Council of Europe the deliberations of that body on fur farming.

3. Mrs. Mahon : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he proposes to raise in the EC Council of Ministers the issue of fur farming and regulations relating thereto.

5. Ms. Primarolo : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is his response to the Farm Animal Welfare Council's statement on mink and fox farming.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson) : I discussed the Council oEurope recommendations with my officials before the last meeting in April and asked them to take account of the Farm Animal Welfare Council's recent statement. Until this work is complete, there would be little point in raising the matter in the Council of Ministers. In the meantime, I have asked the state veterinary service to continue its monitoring of fur farms, as recommended by the Farm Animal Welfare Council.

Dr. Howells : Will the Minister put to the Council of Europe the case for phasing out fur farms, as it is clear from a wide range of evidence that fur farms do not and cannot meet the basic requirements of farm animal welfare?

Mr. Thompson : The Farm Animal Welfare Council did not recommend that I should ban fur farms. The Council of Europe is a good forum in which to discuss fur farming. The British are well down the league of people who farm for fur. The Danes farm 10 million animals, the Swedes 2 million, the Dutch 1.5 million and the French 500,000, compared with 250,000 in the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Mahon : Will the Minister acknowledge that there has not been proper research into fur farming? Will he instruct his officials not to support any recommendations until there has been research into this sort of farming? Will he undertake to publish that research? Fur farming worries many people. The animals are in great distress and often self-mutilate. This is a very serious issue.

Mr. Thompson : The hon. Lady is right to be worried. About 25 per cent. of fur produced in the United Kingdom comes from Calderdale. We have asked the Farm Animal Welfare Council to investigate fur farming. The council always publishes its conclusions in full. We in no way restrain the council in who it calls to give evidence, nor in any way do we restrict what it does with that evidence afterwards.

Ms. Primarolo : What action will the Minister take on the farming of arctic foxes in breach of the Berne convention, to which we are signatory? Farming animals

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for their fur is abhorrent. We should stick clearly to the conventions that we have signed. What steps will the hon. Gentleman take to reinforce our commitment to the Berne convention?

Mr. Thompson : We shall follow the guidelines of the Council of Europe and those laid down by the Farm Animal Welfare Council. There seems to be much more emotion about the farming of foxes than about the farming of mink, although the hon. Lady probably feels as emotional about both. We are considering all aspects, and we undertake to publish all our research.

Mr. Jessel : Has my hon. Friend noticed that some of those who complain about fur farming wear leather shoes?

Mr. Thompson : My hon. Friend is right. Most people wear leather shoes. Hon. Members are saying that to rear an animal purely for one purpose, but not for meat, is abhorrent. The Government well understand that point, but I am not undertaking to restrict mink farming. I pledge that we shall ensure that mink farming observes the most hygienic and proper codes. The Fur Breeders Association of Great Britain is to be commended for its code of practice, which its members follow closely.

Mr. Colvin : Will my hon. Friend confirm that he accepts the 1984 ruling of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that animals in fur farms are semi-domesticated, not wild? Will he further confirm that before he returns to the Council of Ministers for more discussions, and on receipt of recommendations from his officials when they have completed their work, he will discuss the matter with fur farmers' representatives before reaching any conclusions?

Mr. Thompson : I often meet the Farm Animal Welfare Council, the RSPCA, fur farmers and others. My hon. Friend rightly said that animals in fur farms are semi-domesticated, which is why it is abhorrent for people to release them into the wild. I am sure that no hon. Member agrees with that practice, which in the past has destroyed the ecology of valleys. I shall consult the relevant bodies before taking further steps.

Irradiated Food

2. Mr. Nigel Griffiths : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he expects to discuss food irradiation with other EC Agriculture Ministers.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor) : I expect discussions on the draft directive on food irradiation to start later this year.

Mr. Griffiths : Has the Minister had an opportunity to study the report of the Consumers Association on food irradiation in this month's "Which?", which warns that food irradiation removes nutrients from food but increases the likelihood of toxins and radiolytic products being left in it? Does he agree that we need firm Government action to improve standards throughout the food chain and not irradiation?

Mr. MacGregor : On the latter point, over the past few months we have taken a number of steps, where necessary, to deal with food safety and standards throughout the food chain. One should not take decisions on food

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irradiation on the ground that it will solve all food safety problems. Food irradiation has a part, but only a part, to play in the total process of dealing with food safety. It is right to give consumers and manufacturers freedom of choice on that process, given the beneficial effects that it can have for some food products. As to the report of the Consumers Association, food irradiation has been studied by more scientists than almost every other food process. It has no greater effect on nutrition than the other processes through which food goes, including cooking. Food irradiation is neutral in its effect on toxins.

Miss Emma Nicholson : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, contrary to the scare stories put forward by the Opposition, food irradiation cannot by some extraordinary miracle turn bad food good? It leaves bad food bad, but gives good food a longer shelf life, thereby increasing the housewife's freedom of choice.

Mr. MacGregor : As so often on these matters, my hon. Friend talks good sense. I agree with everything that she said.

Dr. David Clark : Does the Minister recall telling the House last week that if he introduced irradiation he would ensure that the public were made aware of whether food had been irradiated? As the majority of irradiated food will be sold in restaurants, will he give a categorical guarantee that restaurants will be required to display a notice in a prominent position stating that they sell irradiated food? Alternatively, it should be clearly stated on the menu that they are selling irradiated food.

Mr. MacGregor : As the hon. Gentleman knows, it will be some time before the ban on food irradiation in this country can be lifted.

Mr. Home Robertson : Answer the question.

Mr. MacGregor : I am coming to the point. This is relevant. It will be some time before the ban is lifted. We will wish to consult and take decisions on a range of details including precisely what is included on labels. The point made by the hon. Gentleman is one of those details. Precisely how we ensure that the consumer knows that food in restaurants has been irradiated will be a matter for detailed consultation and consideration. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I firmly believe that consumers must have informed freedom of choice. His point will be dealt with.

Mr. David Martin : When was food irradiation first patented? How much scientific evidence has been accumulated since then?

Mr. MacGregor : From memory, I think that the first food irradiation process was permitted in 1921.

Dr. Moonie : The Minister remembers that, does he?

Mr. MacGregor : I do not have to be alive to remember everything that I have read. From my historical education, I can remember other things.

For more than 40 years food irradiation has been studied by scientists. Provided that the proper control framework is operated and the right levels are used, the safety aspects have been fully approved by scientists internationally in many scientific bodies and by many organisations that have considered food irradiation, including the advisory committee in this country.

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6. Mr. Ron Davies : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what estimates his Department makes of future demand for nursery- grown trees for commercial forestry in England and Wales.

Mr. MacGregor : The Forestry Commission estimates its own needs which it meets largely from its own nurseries, while the horticultural trade makes separate assessments of the likely demand from the private forestry sector. The Horticultural Trades Association meets the commission periodically to discuss likely planting trends.

Mr. Davies : Is the Minister aware of the research undertaken at the university of Suffolk which has shown unacceptably high levels of lead in food crops grown adjacent to motorways? Would it make more sense in terms of protecting public health, enhancing the environment and giving a much- needed boost to the forestry industry if corridors of land adjacent to motorways could be taken out of agricultural production and given over to forestry?

Mr. MacGregor : That is a much wider question than the main question before us. I am aware of some of the research, although I have not had the opportunity to study it. I would have to know the basis of the research and be sure of it before I acted on it. Moving from that to the solution that the hon. Gentleman has suggested is a very different matter and raises much wider considerations. I cannot give him the assurance that he seeks.

Mr. Lord : My right hon. Friend will be aware of the serious effects of the tax change in the 1988 Budget on the supply of nursery trees. He will know that millions of those trees have been burnt this year because they were not required. He will also know that young trees cannot be kept indefinitely and that when they are nearly three years old they must be disposed of if not required. I appreciate that this may be difficult to organise, but will my right hon. Friend do his best to ensure that supply and demand in this difficult area are kept in reasonable balance so that we can plant the trees which we need to plant and so that nursery businesses do not suffer such shocks in the future?

Mr. MacGregor : The Forestry Commission makes its own estimates of its demand and, on the whole, it supplies its own trees. My hon. Friend must recognise that it is much more difficult to do that in the private sector when the demand involves thousands of landowners and others who may want to decide which trees to plant. It is difficult for the Government to make that kind of estimate. I am aware of the immediate downturn in planting following last year's Budget. That always happens when there are major changes in the way in which regimes are financed. However, there has been a general welcome for the change from tax reliefs to grants. I hope that there will be a pick-up following the period of uncertainty--the time that people must take to assess the new regime. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know of the response in the first eight months to the farm woodlands scheme, which involves the planting of 10 million new trees in the next three years, many of which are broadleaf trees. I am sure that he will have noticed also that, in the first 10 months of the scheme, applications under the woodland grant scheme have been encouraging, with applications for nearly 36,000 hectares.

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Mr. Mallon : Is the Minister aware of the deep concern among officials in the North of Ireland about the possible sale of some public forests into private hands? Does he agree that, because of the small acreage of forests in the North of Ireland, that would be to the detriment of a service that has made a tremendous input to the industry? Will he have discussions with his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that those fears are dispelled as soon as possible?

Mr. MacGregor : I have no responsibility for forestry matters in Northern Ireland, but I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, over the past eight years, disposals have been extremely successful in dealing with the rationalisation of the public estate. I strongly support the announcement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland on 16 June about the programme for the next 10 years. It gives a considerable and timely boost to the private forestry sector and enables the commission's estate to be further rationalised.

Mr. Greg Knight : Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Conservative Members warmly welcome the farm woodlands scheme? He has mentioned the number of trees being planted. Will any of them be oaks and, if so, how many?

Mr. MacGregor : Yes. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's question. Farmers' responses to the scheme in the early months of its introduction have been extremely encouraging. It is noticeable how many applications have been received for farmland in lowland areas, most notably perhaps in East Anglia, which is leading the way. I am particularly pleased to note that about 2 million oak trees are involved in the overall figures.

7. Mr. Tony Lloyd : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on European forestry policy and its impact on English forestry.

Mr. MacGregor : There is no common forestry policy as such. However, the Council of Agriculture Ministers recently agreed a package of voluntary measures making up a forestry action programme. The main effect of this programme from the United Kingdom's point of view is that we shall be able to obtain some reimbursement of our expenditure on the afforestation of agricultural land.

Mr. Lloyd : The Minister admitted that forestry nurseymen have had a hard time since last year's changes in forestry policy. Will he make sure that some of the European money from the forestry package is devoted to easing forestry nurserymen's problems? The Minister responsible refused to meet the nurserymen. Will the Minister reverse the decision, with a view to meeting the nurserymen to discuss how the money could be used to assist their problems?

Mr. MacGregor : It is important to understand what the European forestry programme does. We were successful in achieving our objectives in the negotiations. One of them was to ensure that, in future, the schemes that we have been pioneering in this country will be eligible for some European funding. Depending on the response to our current schemes, about £6 million is likely to come from the European Community for the kind of schemes that we

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are introducing. It will depend on the uptake of the schemes, and nurserymen will obviously have to take that into account.

Mr. John Greenway : With regard to the uptake of the schemes, how many hectares are likely to be planted under existing applications for the farm woodlands grant? What interest has been shown by tenants and what arrangements can be made to ensure that they can profit from this excellent arrangement?

Mr. MacGregor : For the first eight months, the figure is about 6, 200 hectares. I have obviously been keen for opportunities to be extended to tenants. The schemes are long term, so tenants need to secure their landlords' agreement. I am pleased to say that, so far, about 15 per cent. of applications have been granted to tenants. That is not far short of the total number of tenanted holdings. It appears that there is a reasonable response by landlords to tenants.

Mr. Geraint Howells : After listening to the Minister's reply, is it right for me to assume that his friends in Europe are unwilling to give money to the public sector--the Forestry Commission--in this country?

Mr. MacGregor : The main schemes in the forestry programme about which we were talking do not affect the Forestry Commission or public authorities.

Mr. Home Robertson : Now that the crisis in woodland nurseries has been referred to by hon. Members from both sides of the House, does the Minister accept that it is proof positive that forestry speculators do not give a damn about the long-term benefit and welfare of Britain's woodlands, and that all they ever wanted was access to a lucrative tax dodge? Will he further accept that the Forestry Commission has by far the best record of public accountability and giving the public access to British woodland? Therefore, will he repudiate the proposals recently made by the Secretary of State for Scotland to force the Forestry Commission to privatise a further 250,000 acres of our forests, so putting even more woodlands behind closed gates?

Mr. MacGregor : On the second question, the hon. Gentleman was obviously not listening. I have already warmly supported the comments made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in answer to a previous question, and I do so again. My right hon. and learned Friend also made it clear that public access is a matter that we are considering further in relation to the programme over the next 10 years.

On the first question, I repeat that when the system of taxes or grants is changed, there is always a period during which people will wish to reflect before they make a decision about future planning. There was an even sharper decline in planting when the capital transfer tax was introduced by the Labour Government in the 1970s. The hon. Gentleman and his party supported the main thrust of the changes made last year, so I am not at all clear exactly what he is complaining about.

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Farm Livestock (Slaughtering)

9. Mr. John P. Smith : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if his Department will consider introducing legislation to ensure that farm livestock are slaughtered as close to the farm of origin as possible.

Mr. Donald Thompson : No, Sir. There are already extensive controls protecting the welfare of animals during transport.

Mr. Smith : Bearing in mind the fact that there has been a huge increase in the export of livestock to the continent for slaughter, that there are proposals to reduce the number of stops for water and food--which means that livestock can be in transit for up to 24 hours or more, which is particularly cruel and unnecessary--and that there are good economic benefits to the farming community and slaughtering industries in encouraging domestic slaughter, may I ask the Minister to consider these arguments when he and his colleagues examine livestock transport arrangements?

Mr. Thompson : The hon. Gentleman does well to mention this matter, especially in relation to Welsh sheep which are exported throughout the continent, both dead and alive. I always consult my colleagues about the transport of animals. The controls laid down in the United Kingdom are, in some respects, even more stringent than those broadly laid down by the EC. All animals leaving this country have to be rested for at least 10 hours on this side of the water in approved lairages.

Mr. Ron Davies : At the moment.

Mr. Thompson : The hon. Gentleman says "at the moment". I understood that the purport of the question was that we should keep a watch on Europe where the distances involved are much greater. Animals emanating from this country are at an advantage, not a disadvantage.

Mr. Knapman : Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot have it both ways? If more meat is to be slaughtered in big, modern abattoirs which are licensed to export meat to other countries, it logically follows that less meat will be slaughtered close to the farm gate.

Mr. Thompson : That is a good point which I fully understand and shall explain to Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen because obviously they do not. They have been pressing for licensed abbatoirs--export abattoirs-- which, of necessity, will be bigger and more efficient, but will also have to be further away from the farm. Animals will have to be taken to those export-approved slaughterhouses. There is a good trade in live animals abroad because once a live animal is abroad it can be killed as a French or German animal would be killed. That is an attraction to the countries that import our animals. We take a great deal of trouble to ensure that those animals are taken abroad in the best possible way and that their welfare is safeguarded.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett : Can the Minister confirm that there has been a steady increase in the number of sheep exported live? Surely it is much kinder to slaughter sheep in this country rather than abroad, and also much better for British jobs.

Mr. Thompson : There has been an increase in the amount of sheepmeat going abroad, both dead and alive,

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and the number of live exports has increased in proportion with that. If the sheep are properly conducted, housed, lairaged and transported, they travel very well.

Food Safety

10. Mr. Thurnham : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what recent measures he has taken to improve food safety in the United Kingdom ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. MacGregor : I have recently introduced several measures at all stages in the food chain, from production of animal feed right through to storage and handling of food in the home.

Mr. Thurnham : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the major British food firms lead the world in safety standards? Does he also agree that the difference between the Government and the Opposition in this regard is that whereas my right hon. Friend, with his scientific advisers, works closely with those firms to establish new standards and research priorities, the Opposition listen to spurious advice and call for inefficiently used local authority environmental health officers?

Mr. MacGregor : I agree that our food industry has a very good record, in both range and quality of provision and in food safety. I well know how much the industry is investing in new plant and facilities to enable it constantly to improve food safety. After all, unless it does so it will not continue to expand and sell its products, both at home and in the export market, and its export record shows how successful it has been.

I also agree that it is extremely important for Government action to be based on the best available scientific advice. We have many scientists from all disciplines, both independent and in the Ministry, to advise us and maintain constant surveillance. It is on that basis that we are able to act promptly to protect the consumer.

Mr. Robert Hughes : Does the Minister accept that there is a close connection between food hygiene--and food safety--and preparation? Is he aware that in Aberdeen there is great concern at the decision announced yesterday to go ahead with the cut in the research budget at the Torry research station? When the Minister saw a deputation of Members of Parliament the day before, we put it to him that the research being done in collaboration with the EEC was under threat, and he promised to consider the matter. Has he done so, and if so, what decision has he reached?

Mr. MacGregor : It is important to remember that Torry's research, and the research that the Government have said from the outset that they will not continue to fund, is of a commercial nature, close to the development end--near-market research that is appropriate for commercial exploitation if companies wish to take up the opportunity. That is precisely the kind of research which we feel should be funded by the industry. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has had extensive discussions with the industry, and I regret to say that the industry does not wish to fund those particular projects. As for the proposed European Community projects, my hon. Friend is currently considering them and will write to the hon. Gentleman shortly.

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Mr. Hill : Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the latest report by health inspectors on food being taken out of the country by air? The report said that one in four aircraft meals was dangerous to passengers. Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter? Could not the food be subjected to irradiation? Surely the problem needs more scrutiny. Like many of my colleagues, I travel frequently in aircraft.

Mr. MacGregor : I suspect that at present I travel in aircraft as much as anyone, as I spend so much of my time negotiating beyond these shores. I am aware of some of the recent research reports. Indeed, we debated the subject in the House last Wednesday, and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, whose primary responsibility it is, said that he was examining the situation closely to see whether any action was required from him. If and when the ban on irradiation is lifted--obviously, such action will require parliamentary approval--it will apply only to products for which it is appropriate. It will then be for the industry involved--in this case, the airline--and for consumers themselves to decide whether they wish to make use of irradiated food.

Mr. Ron Davies : Does the Minister realise that the Labour party's policy to create an independent food standards agency has now been endorsed by the National Consumer Council and the Institute of Trading Standards Administration? Given the growing concern that exists about the quality and wholesomeness of food that is available to the British consumer, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this would be an ideal opportunity for him to set to one side his political interests and include our proposal for an independent agency in the food Bill which he is currently considering?

Mr. MacGregor : I have had a quick look at the National Consumer Council report and obviously I shall wish to read it further. From that quick look, it seems to me that there are criticisms, as I know from when I have been to the United States, of the way in which that country organises these matters. There are criticisms of the way in which the Food and Drug Administration has operated, just as there are criticisms in other countries. Every country must decide how it wishes to deal with food safety, and there is no perfect answer. It is interesting to note, however, that the majority of countries, certainly in the European Community, organise these matters in the way that we do. I understand that the paper in question has been produced as a consultative document. I have no doubt that there will be much discussion about the pros and cons, and there are clearly a number of cons listed in the document in that respect.

Mr. Jack : Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Ministry will continue to take a strong line in rebutting spurious and unscientifically sponsored claims about food safety, such as the recent comments made about the chemical Alar?

Mr. MacGregor : It is extremely important that scientific advice and evidence, not emotion and scary headlines, are the guide in these matters from the point of view of Government action. It is important for all parties in the House not to respond to immediate pressures from interest groups and scare stories but to consider the evidence and listen to responsible scientists. That is what

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I do and on that basis we asked our advisory committee recently to look again at the evidence on Alar. The committee made a clear recommendation and we have stuck with that.

Farm Animals

11. Mr. John Hughes : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether his Department has responded to the call from Compassion in World Farming for farm animals to be accorded the status of sentient animals ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Donald Thompson : I have told Compassion in World Farming that the Government see no need to press for a change in the status of farm animals under European law because the treaty of Rome already provides all the necessary powers to protect the welfare of farm animals.

Mr. Hughes : Is the Minister aware that the conditions in which many animals travel when they are exported are nothing short of barbaric, causing the animals a great deal of unnecessary suffering? If the new Common Market transport regulations fail to eliminate that suffering, what steps will he take to press for improved standards?

Mr. Thompson : I do not agree that animals being transported in and from the United Kingdom are caused suffering anywhere near the description that the hon. Gentleman gave. This is the fifth question about animal welfare today, and it is a credit to the House that we take the matter so seriously. I have before me our clear statement of policy detailing how we expect animals to be carried when they travel in this country and to other countries. We shall press the European Commission to maintain rigorously the standards that we have set and which seem to be operating successfully in this country.

Mr. Charles Wardle : Will the Minister accept that lofty strictures about the treatment of farm animals are an insult to the vast majority of British farmers, who look after their livestock in a humane fashion and have quite enough to do making a living from the land without interference from politically motivated animal rights protestors?

Mr. Thompson : I agree with my hon. Friend that the vast majority of our farmers deal with their farming business and the welfare of their animals in an exemplary way. In Parliament, however, we are concerned with the villain in all sorts of ways and we cannot tolerate villainy in regard to animals.

Food (Contamination)

12. Dr. Moonie : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about the future of research into microbiological contamination of food.

Mr. MacGregor : My Department is firmly committed to providing support for food safety research, on which substantial resources are already being spent. For example, I announced earlier this year that my Department plans to spend £1 million annually on new research on salmonella in poultry and £4.5 million over the next five years on a new strategic research initiative designed to predict the growth of food poisoning organisms in a wide variety of food environments and processes.

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