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Mr. Rowe: Is there not a serious danger that the FSA will find all sorts of ways to lay restrictions on the British food industry? If supermarkets are going to demand certain standards of production from British producers, should we oblige them not to buy from foreign producers who produce to a less stringent protocol?

Mr. Tyler: I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says, and only wish that I had received such support during

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the previous Parliament: the problem was important then, and it has got worse. A level playing field is needed, not just to be fair to the industry, but to provide consistent quality for consumers.

The way in which the FSA is responsible to Parliament--and therefore to our constituents--is a critical matter. The special Select Committee has taken its own experience of considering the issue--drawing members from both the Agriculture Committee and the Select Committee on Health--as a template for dealing with the matter. Before the general election, I suggested that this matter was so crucial to the nation that the agency should not be responsible to any single Whitehall Department, but to a Select Committee along the lines of the Public Accounts Committee. Accountability will be crucial.

Funding is another issue. The Government initially proposed to impose a flat rate on all eligible food establishments--a food poll tax. The outrage expressed throughout the country has, I hope, made Ministers think again. I am delighted to see that the special Select Committee report discards that idea in no uncertain terms, saying:


I hope to hear an early announcement that that will happen.

I can illustrate the absurdity of the initial proposal with an example from Inverness. I visited a small family bakery last Tuesday. It has 11 small outlets in villages around Inverness, and the total initial bill for the 12 establishments would be £1,000 a year. The enormous supermarket a few hundred yards away would pay £90. There is something basically so illogical about that ludicrous proposal that I hope the Minister can tell us it has been kicked into touch.

Mr. Gill: Does the hon. Gentleman support the principle that the cost of the FSA should be charged to the trade, or does he share my view that if the Government impose regulation or inspection on an industry, the Government should pay for it?

Mr. Tyler: As the point, principal and core objective of the new agency is public health, which must be a core responsibility of the Government, core funding should indeed come from the taxpayer's purse.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Tyler: I am up against time, and the hon. Lady may not have a chance to speak herself if I go on too long.

If there must be some contribution from the industry--the Select Committee makes some suggestions but I have no time to go into them--it must be based on square footage. That is quite easy to work out; the House considered the matter in relation to Sunday trading. However, as the hon. Member for Ludlow said, funding is a core responsibility of Government because public health cannot be more important.

The report refers to the responsibilities of the FSA in international terms. Having recently been to the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, I recognise that our agency

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will have an input within the European framework on issues such as BST hormone treatment, meat, milk and the American tendency to try to create a new food imperialism.

I shall refer briefly to a specific case in which the FSA is urgently required. In this respect I note the remarks made by the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) about the need for an even playing field.

Last summer, on 17 June 1998, in a debate on the Food Safety Act 1990, I referred to the case of Duckett and Aldridge, specialist cheese makers. I do not want to repeat all the arguments in that debate, except to say that I had the support of the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) and the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) in drawing attention to the extent to which the so-called hygiene police were disastrously overreacting in that case. If that case is to be a model of how the Food Standards Agency will operate, we are in big trouble, as we shall be imposing great and unjustified bureaucratic burdens on smaller specialist, craft food producers and processors.

We all owe a debt to Messrs Christopher Booker and Richard North. Some years ago, they published a wonderful book, illustrated by the inimitable Willie Rushton--it is therefore good Easter recess reading--entitled "The Mad Officials--How Bureaucrats are Strangling Britain". Incidentally, it was published in1995 and deals with the 15 years of Conservative Administration prior to that date--so let none of us think that such bureaucratic burdens are anything new.

In last June's debate, I pointed out that the Ministry's attitude to small producers was entirely unacceptable.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I know a little about the case to which my hon. Friend is referring. I also know that excellent book. Is not one of the problems the fact that the offences he has mentioned are treated as absolute offences--in which no mitigation is available for having employed the best available technology and taken every possible precaution? If a company is found to have transgressed, it can be put out of business, despite the fact that it is doing an excellent job in producing a wholesome product.

Mr. Tyler: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend--who, coming from Somerset, will be very well aware both of the circumstances and of their repercussions over the entire food industry, not only in the south-west but across the country.

Just last week, at a special meeting of the Farmers Club, I met some of the people involved in the case, and for a specific reason. Although the Department of Health lost the case, it lost on a technicality. Consequently, one very good producer and one very good wholesaler of cheese are effectively uncompensated and are in danger of being run out of town and ruined. Moreover, currently, they have no redress; indeed, the very reverse applies. For reasons that Ministers will not explain to me, the Department of Health will appeal the case. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will be able--although not today--to extract an answer from the Department of Health on exactly what it is doing with taxpayers' money in trying to devastate two extremely valuable food processors and wholesalers.

The text of last June's debate shows that the Minister for Public Health was woefully misinformed about the nature of the action taken by her officials. In attempting

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to explain to other hon. Members and to me what had happened, she was not able to give us the full picture. I shall give only one example. She said:


    "A 12-year-old boy developed not a minor tummy upset but renal failure, was put on dialysis and was found to have an E. coli 0157 infection."--[Official Report, 17 June 1998; Vol. 314, c. 343.]

That is just not true. The boy had recovered by the time he was given renal treatment, which he had been put on for purely preventive purposes, to ensure that there was no recurrence of the disease. He was not put on dialysis because he was suffering from a major problem. The nature of the Minister's reply suggests that the hygiene police were in extraordinarily defensive mode. They not only overreacted, but subsequently covered up their mistakes.

If the incident is an example of the way in which the Food Standards Agency will operate, there is a very big problem of which all hon. Members should be aware. I trust, however, that the Government will take full account of the advice of the special Select Committee. We surely have to ensure that our fellow citizens are able to make an informed choice of food. They will therefore have to know when food comes from a foreign source with lower animal welfare standards, and less stringent legislation on labour and global environmental impact. We have to accept that it will not be sufficient for the Food Standards Agency simply to worry about risk; it will have to be concerned with the entire continuum, through quality to nutrition.

I believe that the citizens of the United Kingdom--our colleagues and our constituents--have every right to be confident in the quality of good British food. However, unless we are very careful, many manufacturers, processors and wholesalers of that quality food will be out of business before the Food Standards Agency has even started work.

11.55 am

Mr. Jon Trickett (Hemsworth): I should like briefly to speak about an injustice that is being done not only to my constituency but to most of the other areas in the former English coalfields. The injustice is compounding the problems caused by the industrial, economic and social cataclysm that followed the 1984 strike, in which 190,000 jobs directly related to the coal mining industry were lost. The jobs were lost not in metropolitan areas, where the unemployed might eventually have had access to other jobs, but in small towns, villages and hamlets such as those in my constituency--Featherstone, Hemsworth, Upton, Ackworth, South Elmsall, Crofton and South Kirkby. Those communities have little or no infrastructure, and no access to other local jobs.

The injustice is continued governmental underfunding in assisting those areas' regeneration. The injustice is unwitting and is, I fear, a product of how our statisticians work. Current measures of deprivation result in funding regimes that inadequately reflect the true deprivation of former coalfield areas. Local authority funding levels in all coal mining areas are very low, and, in the current review, European funding--which was previously the one saviour of our communities--is in danger of being lost.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is increasingly relying on only one index--the index of local conditions. Consequently, a variety of funding regimes will increasingly be based on that one index.

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I do not want to engage in some type of competition, demonstrating how poor my area is compared with other deprived areas. I shall leave such a competition to other people, as I think that it would be unprincipled to argue that other deprived areas should lose funding. Nevertheless, I feel that the index of local conditions relies too much on housing condition and probably also on ethnicity--thereby discriminating against areas, such as mine, where the housing stock has, over the years, been well-maintained by the local authority, and where there is an overwhelming preponderance of people from an ethnically white background.

The European Union relies on various indices of deprivation. Eligibility for objective 1 funding--which is the highest-level funding that might be available to Hemsworth, or to any other area in the English coalfields--is determined on the basis of gross domestic product output per head. To be eligible for such funding, areas must be at 75 per cent. or less in the index. An independent analysis of the communities in my area shows that we are probably at about 75 per cent., or just marginally over it. Therefore, we should be able to receive objective 1 money. Sadly, however, the European Union does not propose basing its analysis on district level in determining eligibility for those funds.

In determining communities' eligibility for objective 2 funding, however, the European Union uses a secondary index, based on district unemployment levels.

Unemployment is notoriously difficult to measure. Over the years we have seen disputes in the House and elsewhere over the true level of unemployment. In Wakefield, which is the district in which my constituency lies, the official level of unemployment is 9.1 per cent., which is less than the European Union average. I believe that that dramatically understates the situation in Wakefield, Hemsworth and throughout the coalfield area. Wakefield district lost one in 10 of all jobs lost in the coal mining industry since 1984. A total of 190,000 jobs were savaged for reasons that we all know. Wakefield lost 20,000 of those jobs--one tenth of all the coalfield losses. That is the equivalent of 63 jobs per 1,000 people in my area.

How can the unemployment statistics get it so wrong? One clue that might lead to a solution to that riddle lies in the health-related statistics for the Wakefield area. In Wakefield, as in many other parts of the coalfield, the standardised mortality ratios are very high. Wakefield has 11 per cent. more deaths than could be expected on average in Britain as a whole. About 29 per cent. of our households--almost one in three--contains somebody suffering from a limiting long-term illness.

There is massive understatement of the true level of unemployment in the coalfield areas. In Wakefield, 29 per cent. of people of working age--it is higher in my constituency--are regarded as being economically active. That is the real clue to the understatement of the coalfield unemployment figures. I have no doubt that real employment in Wakefield as a whole is between 18 and 20 per cent.--one in five of the population. I reckon that about 40 per cent. of households--two out of five--have nobody who is economically active. How can the statistics used by the Government and the European Union so badly understate our position so that we are left without access to the resources we need for regeneration?

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The villages that I represent and now live among are sinking gradually but inexorably further into poverty. Statistics show that before the introduction of the minimum wage, an increasing number of people were living on £2.50 or less per hour. The statistics on poverty and household income levels show that increasing numbers of households in Hemsworth, Wakefield and throughout the coalfield areas are sinking further into poverty.

I know that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office understands the coalfield areas and I urge him to take this message back to his colleagues in Government and tell them that the coalfields are suffering from an injustice as a result of the indices of deprivation that the Government have adopted. They understate the true level of suffering and poverty in our communities. We need help from people such as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who understands our area, in order to convince the Government that we need access to the badly needed funds for regeneration.


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