Dr. David Clark (South Shields) (by private notice) : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on lead in milk and meat following the discovery of lead in cattle feed.
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer) : A consignment of rice bran was contaminated during its transport from Burma. On its arrival in Belgium the unfit cargo was not destroyed, but sold on and reprocessed into animal feed. The Dutch embassy informed the Ministry's legal department on Wednesday 1 November of a specific consignment thought to be contaminated and delivered to two companies based in Teignmouth and Liverpool. By this time, our own veterinary investigation service had identified from its own investigations a connection between cattle deaths and lead contamination in animal feed.
As soon as my Department learned that contaminated animal feed had been distributed to farms in this country, it took urgent steps to trace the suppliers, merchants and compounders and used their customer lists to warn the farmers concerned. It stopped the movement from these farms of animals and foodstuffs which might have been affected and arranged with the Milk Marketing Board for the segregation of the milk. These voluntary arrangements were confirmed by order under part I of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985.
The European Commission was also contacted to request urgent investigation of the possibility that this incident was the result of criminal activities in another member state. Throughout all this we have worked closely with the Department of Health. It confirms that, on present evidence, even in the worst case of the maximum possible intake of lead and other metals from this incident, there has been no hazard to human health.
I pay tribute to the staff of the Ministry and the Milk Marketing Board, who have handled the massive task of dealing with the 1,500 or more farms concerned and who are now involved in the testing procedure through which we can continue to protect human health and begin to de-restrict farms. I am sure we all recognise the very severe effects that these strong measures have on the farmers involved. They have shown considerable co-operation and I am sure that they will realise that these restrictions must continue to be maintained as long as is necessary to safeguard the health of the public.
Dr. Clark : We on this side of the House approve of the Government's decision to impose restrictions. First, will the Minister explain why, having been alerted by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture on 1 November to the presence of the lead-contaminated cattle feed in Britain, he waited five days, until 6 November, before imposing restrictions? Why did the Minister not issue a precautionary notice to farmers warning them of the possibility of contamination and asking them to withhold the cattle feed, thus avoiding unnecessary cattle deaths and preventing potentially hazardous milk from entering the food chain?
Secondly, has the Minister seen the report in The Sunday Times that the Milk Marketing Board was not informed of the seriousness of the problem until 5 November--four days afterwards? Why was there that
Column 28delay? Why did the Minister wait not five but 10 days before commencing the testing of meat for lead? As he knows, it is a potentially dangerous by-product.
I associate the Opposition with the sterling work done by the Ministry officials and the vets. Does the Minister recall informing me in a parliamentary answer that, in the past 10 years, the state veterinary service has been cut by 25 per cent? Will he now reverse that process as a first step to improving our ability to respond to food emergencies such as the one now on our hands?
Mr. Gummer : I am sure that most hon. Members would feel that this subject should not be drawn into party political debate, and particularly by armchair critics. On the speed of response, I would prefer to listen to the views put forward by local people. One of the south-west regional chairmen of the National Farmers Union wrote to me yesterday. He said :
"I congratulate you and your staff on the superb reaction to the crisis. I know that Ministry staff and NFU staff have worked all hours since the issue broke and that there has been close co-operation throughout".
That is a fairer statement of what happened.
It will immediately appear to all hon. Members that it would be impossible to ask all farmers to withhold their cattle feed. To suggest that all cattle feed should be withheld because a specific consignment of cattle feed
The most important thing to do was precisely what the Ministry did. It had specific information, it followed up that specific information as fast as was humanly possible, and it made sure that a good deal of the feed did not go out. Much of the rest was recovered, and the farmers were informed so that they did not move cattle or milk from their premises.
The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) must accept that we brought in the Milk Marketing Board at the very point at which we were able to segregate the milk, which we did on Sunday ; that was perfectly proper, and that was the order in which we should have done it. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to mislead people, so I am quite happy for him to go through the details. The hon. Member for Workington always tries to make party political points out of these matters, and enjoys doing so, so I will not listen to him. His hon. Friend the Member for South Shields is a much more decent person and he knows the facts in these matters.
May I explain why we did not test meat earlier? We felt that it was necessary to do things in a proper order. The milk was obviously the biggest and most important matter. Once we had stopped material moving off the farms, it seemed that the first priority was to deal with that product which is in large quantities and which causes considerable storage problems. Therefore, the first thing to do was to test it. Of course, we could not allow any to leave the farms. One must have tests over a period before it is possible to declare that the milk is fit to go back into public supply.
On the testing of meat for lead, the first thing to do is to make sure that there is a proper test to cover not only lead but anything else that might be available, because lead is an impure metal. That is the order in which scientists
Column 29advised us to do it. We feel that that is the right order, and the farmers certainly feel that that is the right order. No animals are leaving the farms, so there can be no threat to public health. That is the right thing to do. I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman's argument because no one, apart from himself, thinks that that is the wong way to do it.
I gladly welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the vets. One of the reasons they were able to do the job so well is because of the efficient reorganisation of the state veterinary service which has been carried out over the past 10 years.
Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton) : May I say how glad I am that my right hon. Friend has twice visited the area concerned and, I believe, the Starcross veterinary inspection centre in my constituency, which has played a leading part in controlling this imported menace, rather than just sitting in his Department in London and waiting for other people to report to him? That is very much appreciated. May I ask him whether it is not possible to supply the actual figures to farmers who want to know the degree of lead contamination so that they and their general practitioners can make an informed judgment as to whether their families are at risk, who have been drinking the milk concerned?
Mr. Gummer : I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I had hoped to make such a visit today--indeed, I was on the train today ready to make a further visit down to the south-west but had to return to the House to respond to this important question. I am sure that my hon. Friend will remind his farmers of the statement by the chief medical officer, who said clearly that there was no need for their families to be worried, on the evidence that we have. I do not want anybody to be worried in that way.
However, I have not made that my first priority. My first priority has been to test and to re-test where early tests show that the level of lead in the milk is low. That has enabled such milk to come back into the system, and we have so far allowed 10 farms to do that. The second priority is obviously to test those farms that have not been tested before.
Greater than either of those priorities would be circumstances in which the figures suggested a particular danger on a particular farm. However, there is no such evidence at the moment and those farmers need not be concerned. Without holding up the other testing arrangements, I am making arrangements so that, as soon as is practical, we can provide those figures for each farm. I shall, of course, ensure that the confidentiality of the figures will be as one would want ; otherwise, the farmers might be less than happy.
Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen) : Since the lead in the animal feed was present in sufficient concentration to cause the deaths of about 30 cattle, thousands of calves and cows must have sub-lethal concentrations of lead in their meat and bones. What will the Government do about that? Will they allow and pay for the slaughter of those lead-contaminated cattle to prevent that lead-contaminated beef from getting into the food chain?
Mr. Gummer : The Government will certainly prevent that material from getting into the food chain if there is any danger to the health of the public. That is first and foremost. We will make decisions about what we have to
Column 30do when we have done the testing and know the extent of the problem and the issues involved. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there can be circumstances in which lead poisoning gradually diminishes, out of the animal altogether--
Mr. Gummer : The hon. Gentleman may not know this, but it is the advice of the state veterinary service. That is what happens. I am in the business of using the scientific advice available to us as much as possible ; and not of frightening people unnecessarily, while always warning them. On no occasion have any circumstances arisen in which the public has not had all the details, to such an extent that every test result given on all the milk during the past few days has been given out to the public so that people know exactly what is happening, and I shall continue to do that.
Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the wild allegations by the Opposition Members on this issue show that they are the enemy not only of the food industry but of the farming industry also, and of all who work in them?
Mr. Gummer : It is important to say that the public's health comes before anything else. If I am unhappy about one or two of the wilder statements that have been made, it is simply because, by suggesting things that are not true, those doing so are worrying people in circumstances in which they need not be worried, and those who have worked so hard to protect the public may feel that they are being snubbed by some hon. Members.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye) : Given the existing pressures on farm incomes in many sectors of the agricultural community, does the Minister think that, as a result of this latest problem, the Government might take any steps to compensate those farmers who will incur financial loss as a result of the very necessary restrictions that his Department has sought to impose in this case? The Minister referred to the possibility of the involvement of some criminal organisation in Europe, and as there was press speculation over the weekend, perhaps completely unfair to the Minister, which said that that might have been a smokescreen, has the right hon. Gentleman received any further information from the Commission about its investigations?
Mr. Gummer : On the first question, I have been in touch with the National Farmers Union and I know that Sir Simon Gourlay takes exactly the same view as I have stated publicly--that this is a matter for the courts and not one for compensation. I want to help the farmers as much as possible and, through our legal department and with the NFU and others, I am trying to see how best this matter can be dealt with. We shall, of course, keep farmers in touch with what is happening in Holland and the rest of Europe.
I believe that the only press speculation to which the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) refers was a comment by the hon. Member for South Shields, the spokesman on agriculture for the Labour party. He suggested--I thought unfortunately, as the facts are exactly opposite--that there was a smokescreen. It is extremely difficult to believe that someone could accidentally turn into cattle feed a
Column 31substance that was so badly contaminated that it was of a different colour from what it should have been. If that is the case, I cannot believe that it was done by, as someone suggested, a silly accident. That would take a great deal of believing.
From the court transcripts of the first case that has taken place in Holland, I understand that the firm that originally bought this feed and brought it into Antwerp has stated that, on no less than three occasions, it telexed the firm that had been paid to take the feed away and to destroy it to say that that feed was contaminated and had to be destroyed.
There is hardly a question mark as to whether the act was done criminally ; the question is who did it, when, and how soon there will be a prosecution.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South) : My right hon. Friend will know that my constituency has been affected by the sales of the contaminated foodstuff. My constituents have asked me to pass on to my right hon. Friend their appreciation and thanks for the prompt action that he took and for the courtesy and thoroughness of his officials, with which I am glad to concur. We have a problem in south Derbyshire about contaminated meat. Will my right hon. Friend reassure us about how the carcases will be disposed of so that they cannot enter the human food chain inadvertently?
Mr. Gummer : Those animals that have died from lead poisoning and those that tests are likely to reveal have died from such poisoning will either be buried or incinerated. There is no question of that meat getting into the human food chain. I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words on this matter ; she, of all people, knows how important it is.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : Does the Minister agree with the policy adviser to the NFU who has said that there is already an established trade in contaminated feed? When the right hon. Gentleman says that I am being political, does he understand that I have sat here on four occasions in recent years and today, when we discussed Chernobyl, bovine spongiform encephalopathy and listeria, and have witnessed clear delay from Departments when dealing with those matters? That was especially true of Chernobyl, when I was told at the Dispatch Box--
Mr. Gummer : As the hon. Gentleman uses those three examples, which are not directly involved with this matter, he might know that we were the first Government to warn people about listeria. How that can be described as delay I do not know. As I understand it, we are still the only Government in western Europe who have warned people about that disease.
Our record stands supreme on Chernobyl. As I said to the hon. Gentleman before, I was happy for my wife, who was then carrying one of our children, to eat that lamb and I am still happy that I said that it was safe, because it was. I continue to believe that that is so. I have taken measures on BSE that are tougher than those recommended by scientists. No Government would have taken measures as tough as our own, because we put food safety first. The hon. Gentleman is wrong on those three examples, and he is wrong in this case. We take the view that feed should not be contaminated ; that is why we have taken measures as tough as this. If the hon. Gentleman cared about food safety, instead of being interested only in party politics, he would be quiet a bit more often.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the speed with which his officials met the danger shows that there is absolutely no need for an independent body to be set up to consider food safety, and that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has discharged its responsibilities in an excellent way?
Mr. Gummer : I disagree with my hon. Friend, because I think that we are the independent body on food safety. That must be so, because our first and primary interest is the protection of the public. Nobody could have moved as fast as we were able to move except a Ministry which was responsible for both food and farming.
Mr. Gummer : I do not think the hon. Gentleman can have thought of his question before he got up to speak, because the average level of lead in the food chain is so small as not to be measurable. The question we are interested in is whether the level of lead at any part of the food chain is dangerous to public health. The Department of Health has made it clear that no one need have any worry on that account.
Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber) : I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,
"The implications of this weekend's events in East Germany for Britain's foreign and European policy."
I know that these are dull words, particularly when it has been a weekend of such extraordinary hope and excitement. To watch on one's television screens great engines tearing holes in the Berlin wall was for me an extraordinary experience. For me it was a wondrous sight to watch people flooding through the gaps where previously they would have feared a bullet in the back. We cannot let such an event pass and not respond to it.
I did my national service in Berlin long ago, before the wall was built. I have visited the city many times since and I identify--as we all should in this free Parliament--with what has been the most dramatic and marvellous demonstration of the power of free thought that we have seen since the war.
Yesterday, like most hon. Members--and like you Mr. Speaker--I marched in a Remembrance day parade. I remembered my father telling me about the bloody days in the trenches in Flanders. I recalled the doctor from the wee village on Skye in which I was brought up, whose job it was to attend Heinrich Himmler after his suicide. I remembered also my friends in Berlin and the troubles that they had had. I remembered that they were throwing off a new tyranny and that we were seeing the birth of an optimism that I-- and I am sure many other hon. Members--have never known.
We all make banal speeches about historic moments but this is a real, tangible and marvellous historical moment and we should not let it pass. We should debate the matter and celebrate with our German friends the possibility of a new and far better future. That is my case.
Mr. Speaker : The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) asks leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely, "The implications of this weekend's events in East Germany for Britain's foreign and European policy."
I do not in any way under-estimate the importance of what the hon. Gentleman has said or of the momentous events unfolding in Europe. However, as he knows, I have to decide whether his application comes within the terms of the Standing Order and, if so, whether a debate should be given priority over the business already set down for this evening or tomorrow. In this case, the matter he has raised does not meet the requirements of the Standing Order and I regret that I cannot submit his application to the House.
Points of Order
Column 34iron curtain is melting before our eyes and the most momentous events for over 40 years are taking place in our continent, it appears that the Opposition believe that the most important action for the House to take is to debate events in Cambodia. Every newspaper and television channel in this country is debating these momentous events, yet we--
Mr. Marlow : The point of order for you, Mr. Speaker, is that we in this democratic assembly in the United Kingdom are being asked by the Opposition to debate events in Cambodia when the European Commission and everybody else in this country are debating the momentous events in eastern Europe, central Europe and our continent. I call upon you, Mr. Speaker, as a representative of this House, to use what influence you have to ensure that we debate the real and important issues which face the future of our continent and our country rather than faraway issues of half a continent away.
Mr. Speaker : Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. I fully appreciate what he has said about the great importance of these events. There will, perhaps, be an opportunity to dwell on them in next Wednesday's debate on developments in the European Community.
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to put this on record firmly and squarely, because what has just been said is a disgrace to your office. Would you confirm that, while the map of Europe is being redrawn this weekend--I concur wholly with what was said earlier by the representative of the Liberal party, the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston)--nevertheless, it is open to the Government to move to suspend the debate between 7 and 10 pm tonight? Therefore, instead of debating £500,000 of ratepayers' money which is to be spent on a road race Bill, we could debate the momentous events in eastern Europe.
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on events which took place over the weekend. You may well have read a series of newspaper articles involving the brother of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)--
Mr. MacKay : I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, are mistaken. I was going on to say that I thought that those articles were full of unworthy innuendoes towards the hon. Member for Bolsover. In order to clear his name, I sought your guidance as to whether the articles constituted a breach of privilege and should be referred to the Select Committee.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : Further to my point of order of Friday morning, Mr. Speaker, I wish to seek your guidance. As the champion of the rights of Back Benchers, for which you are justifiably revered, could you advise the House how it was possible for discussions to take place on the private business of this House--the Isle of Wight Bill--on the Adjournment of the House without involving me? The Social and Liberal Democrats were not present throughout the whole of that debate, despite the fact that they control the Isle of Wight county council. Could you say whether, if they had been present, they would have been entitled, as a minority party, to participate in the negotiations, and possibly have saved the Bill?
Mr. Speaker : Order. I am not in any way responsible for what may go on in private discussions outside the Chamber. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern that a large number of private Bills are currently held up. In procedural terms, nothing out of order has taken place.
Mr. Bennett : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm that a perfectly good report by the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure is before the House and that, if the House implemented it quickly, many problems to do with private business could be resolved?
Mr. Speaker : I can confirm that. I also heard--I hope the hon. Gentleman and the House heard it too--the Leader of the House say at business questions last Thursday that he intended to look into the matter urgently and would seek to deal with it.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the guardian of the liberties and privileges of the House, you have often made it clear that it is precisely because those privileges have been so long fought for that they should be used rarely and for good reason. I was therefore delighted by what you said earlier this afternoon, and I take it that when hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), try to smear people outside the House under the power of privilege, you will call them up short. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) made was fair--
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) : I beg to move, That this House records its profound concern at the continuing tragedy of Cambodia ; calls on Her Majesty's Government not to sponsor any resolution at the United Nations which directly or indirectly gives support or comfort to the Khmer Rouge or its allies, and in the debate in the General Assembly on Wednesday to repudiate specifically Thiounn Prasith of the Khmer Rouge as delegate of Cambodia ; insists that the Government provides clear answers to allegations that British military personnel have been providing training for forces fighting alongside Khmer Rouge forces, and ends forthwith any such training ; believes that no aid other than humanitarian aid should be provided for any group or objective in Cambodia ; and asks that such aid be increased substantially. The intervention earlier by the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow), who I notice has sloped off after making it, brought great discredit on him and on anyone who agreed with him. I am second to none in my praise for and excitement about what is taking place in East Germany and Berlin today. I was there yesterday and was able to see something of it for myself. But the tragedy of Cambodia, a country in which up to 2 million people were slaughtered in the most appalling way by a regime of profound inhumanity, is a matter which the House is right to debate--especially since, on Wednesday this week, the United Nations General Assembly is to debate Cambodia. The Opposition have used the time available to them so that the House can state its views on this agonising issue before the United Nations debate.
Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber) : I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is not saying that I was trying to change the debate on Cambodia--we could well have debated East Germany tomorrow.
Not only do we believe that two days before the United Nations debates Cambodia the House should discuss it, but we believe that the time has come for the United Kingdom Government to reassess and fundamentally to change their policy towards Cambodia. Throughout the world Cambodia has become a symbol of all that is most savage and unacceptable in the conduct of political relations and military activity ; it is now a synonym for the depths of inhumanity to which those who wield power can descend in their maltreatment of the people whose lives they control.
The murder, torture and suppression of human rights and freedom associated with the name of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge can be compared in scale and horror only to Adolf Hitler's holocaust. It is easy for everyone, including the British Government, to say that the Khmer Rouge must never return to power in Cambodia, but
Column 37unless there is a total change in policy towards Cambodia by our Government and by other nations there is a real danger that the Khmer Rouge will return to power there. Those armies are dominated by the Khmer Rouge and are fighting their way into Cambodia. Unless they are halted, they may overturn the Government of Cambodia, the Government of Hun Sen.
The allegedly acceptable face of those armies is Prince Sihanouk, the perpetual prince over the water of Cambodia. The largest part of those armies belongs to the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk's so-called Democratic Coalition is dominated by the Khmer Rouge. Last month The Independent said :
"All the CGDK declarations, including Prince Sihanouk's recent five-point peace plan, are written by the Khmer Rouge, and simply presented to Sihanouk and the KPNLF leader Son Sann, to sign." The coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea--so-called--has as its diplomatic representatives people who in number and importance are dominated by the Khmer Rouge. For example, the so-called Foreign Minister of that coalition was Head of State during Pol Pot's rule in Cambodia.
The British Government are playing an active part in assisting the armies that are dominated by the Khmer Rouge and in seeking to remove from power in Cambodia the Hun Sen regime that is today that country's legal and de facto Government. The rationale of those policies is that Hun Sen was placed in power by Vietnamese forces. There is truth in that, but whatever may be said against the Vietnamese it must be said in their favour that they drove out Pol Pot. It must also be said that the removal of Pol Pot by the Vietnamese has counted less with the United States Administration than the fact that it was the Vietnamese who removed him. Because Vietnam inflicted on the United States the most humiliating defeat on the battlefield that the Americans had ever suffered, United States policy has been dominated by the compulsion to oppose anything with which the Vietnamese are associated. That is a foolish and dangerous motivation to govern the foreign policy of any great power. It is especially regrettable in the case of the United States which, under President Bush, has in many areas made changes in foreign policy that are beneficial and admirable. One can cite the change in policy towards the middle east and in arming the Contras and the way in which the Americans are enhancing the Reagan initiatives in negotiation with the Soviet Union on nuclear disarmament. It is particularly regrettable that on this issue the Bush Administration are continuing the vindictive policies of the Reagan Administration towards Cambodia.
In the case of Cambodia, the United States motivation has led to a profoundly wrong policy, not only on the part of the Americans but by other countries. Taking into account the situation since the Tiananmen square massacre, it is deplorable and even ugly that the policy of the United States and that of China towards Cambodia should be the same. It is an unholy alliance because of the shared loathing by both countries of Vietnam.