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15 Jan 2003 : Column 790—continued


Ethical Investment

7.15 pm

Mr. Iain Coleman (Hammersmith and Fulham): I have a petition of approximately 1,200 signatures, which has been compiled and organised by Chelsea Financial Services, a business located in my constituency. The petition urges the Government to take further action to support and assist those companies and organisations working in ethical investment. The petition has my complete support and I would very much welcome the support of the House for it.

To lie upon the Table.

Natural Health Products

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I have a petition from Consumers for Health Choice from the Ribble Valley and other parts of the United Kingdom who use health shops, with 3,700 signatures on it. It declares that

To lie upon the Table.

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Food Standards Agency

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kemp.]

7.16 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Outside very large urban areas there are still some small towns that manage to maintain a number of specialist shops. I am rather spoilt in my constituency because we have one or two very good ones, and one of the particular favourites of my constituents is a family firm of bakers called Chatwins, which has in its time done considerable damage to my hips and waistline but is much appreciated by those who enjoy its products. Since it is now, I believe, run by the fourth generation of that family, it has a long tradition of supplying very high quality goods. I therefore was considerably surprised when, in the summer, we were struck by a very upsetting incidence of salmonella and I received a letter from Chatwins, setting out a series of circumstances that I thought rather worrying.

Let me begin by saying that I believe that in this day and age we have very many more manufactured foods than we used to, which frequently contain every known chemical on the face of God's earth, and the circumstances in which food is sold to the public seem to me to be in need of considerable and careful monitoring. I in no way resile from the position that in public health we need not only very high standards but standards that everyone appreciates and accepts. As a very young doctor's wife I knew a senior partner who was then medical officer of health in a Devonian borough where I lived at the time and who once, when I ventured to say that I had seen the kitchens of the local hotel and they left a little bit to be desired, informed me, XYes, dear, but the food is absolutely marvellous."

We have moved on since those days, but it is very important with any kind of public body that is undertaking the role of a statutory body—which is what the Food Standards Agency is—that it should be not only aware of the impact of what it is doing but absolutely certain that it does it in a manner that can not only be defended to the general public but supported by the general public. I was therefore very concerned when I received a letter, saying that after the recent salmonella outbreak, the business received unfair treatment from the Food Standards Agency.


in which the name of the bakery was mentioned, which appeared not only in the local but in the national press—

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one of the local papers—

that is, a senior member of the firm—

It is important that we consider the series of events that affected Chatwins bakery. First, it was aware of its involvement only when it became clear that there was a problem. Secondly, I wrote directly to the head of the Food Standards Agency, as a constituency Member of Parliament, and as I would do with any transport question to a stand-alone agency, to inquire exactly what had happened, who was taking responsibility and whether the agency was aware of the impact on a particular firm. I think that I had every justification for doing so.

The firm was not trying to shift blame in any way, nor did it run away from its responsibilities at any point, or do anything other than to accept that salmonella is an extremely dangerous disease for many people. Of course, the firm was so concerned that it was not passing on any form of infection to its customers that it undertook to do whatever was necessary.

I received a silly letter back from the Food Standards Agency, which said in effect, XDon't speak to us. We're tremendously important. Speak only to the Under-Secretary". Frankly, it was such a bureaucratic and silly letter that I am sorry to say that I sent rather a nasty reply. I have been known occasionally to express myself with some vigour and in fairly straightforward English. I said:

Frankly, we must have some sense in this case.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary then sent me a long reply in which she set out what the Department regarded as the official answer. I found that as worrying as some of my original contacts with the agency—for example, the fact that it stated:

I am from a family that contains five doctors. I have the strange idea that a negative result to a test probably means that there is not infection there. Obviously, that is the view of an outsider.

The letter from the Under-Secretary continued:

Let us be clear what happened. There was a problem. When the bakery was made aware of the problem, those who ran it said that they were very concerned. They

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co-operated with the environmental health officers in every possible way and were told that, at that point, because the results had not been obtained, the name of the bakery would not be used—and the next thing they knew was that they were all over the papers. It is not surprising that an announcement to the general public that there may be salmonella in cream buns has some effect on sales. I do not know why it happens—perhaps it shows how unimaginative customers are. Whatever the reason, the announcement had a direct and immediate effect.

What happened then? Did we get any response or explanation from the FSA? Did we get even a gesture of apology—XWe're sorry. We had no intention of damaging the business before we had the evidence to back it up."? Not at all. We got only a letter saying, in essence, XWell, tough. This is what we do, this is how we behave, and as far as we're concerned, you'd better get on with it." That is not good enough from a Government agency, not in this day and age and certainly not in the United Kingdom. I notice that today the FSA issued a press notice saying that the consumer would face considerable difficulties because expansion of the European Union will bring in many new countries that do not have the standards of food hygiene that we in the UK have. Perhaps so, but I note that the FSA made no recommendation on what to do about that; nor, as far as I can tell, did it use the same techniques as it used on a poor little baker in Nantwich, so I am not impressed.

I have looked carefully, not only at the FSA's website, but at the vast number of reports it has turned out. Although the agency has been in existence for only a year, like many Government Departments it appears to advocate the turning out of a great deal of paper. Whoever else's friend the FSA is, it certainly is no friend of trees. The report states that the FSA wants to

oh, no? That is not what I was told in its long and boring epistle—

Under the heading XWho is the FSA accountable to?" it declares, XWe're accountable to Parliament"—well, that is me. I am Parliament. I am Crewe and Nantwich in this place and I have something to say about the way in which the FSA behaves. The report adds that the FSA is also accountable to the devolved Administrations.

The report contains some interesting facts. I found, much to my astonishment, that the FSA has three parts, but the second biggest, which is almost as big as the part that does the job that the FSA is supposed to do, is the bit that deals with both legal matters and communications. Indeed, that part's budget spending is almost as big as that of the part that monitors health. I am sure that that is a sign of the FSA's efficiency and its desire to spread information around, but that is not what it looks like.

We in this place have a special responsibility. No one representing any constituency in the United Kingdom does anything other than support public health. I have

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spent my entire life battling against those who want to smoke, insisting on better conditions for people in poor accommodation, and doing what I can to improve public health generally and the quality of life enjoyed by the people of this country. We must remember occasionally that Government Departments exist because the electorate want them to exist, but the powers that we give them in legislation passed in this Chamber must be used responsibly and sensibly. What they must not do—this group of people who, despite having studied them extremely closely, I do not recognise at all—is take unto themselves the powers of economic life and death by failing to understand what they, by making public a set of circumstances before they are absolutely sure of the facts, can achieve without any real thought.

I am concerned about the way in which the Food Standards Agency has behaved in the case I have described. I am concerned because if a firm is at risk, the least it has the right to expect is a responsible attitude on the part of those with whom it is dealing. If it is being open, not making any difficulty for the environmental health officers and seeking to protect its interests, but not doing so in a way that damages the interests of customers, it has the right to expect that a Government agency will at least consult it and talk to it, and not through a sudden blaze of information and openness that might be considered essential but will do something to ruin the business.

It is because the firm is well known that it is beginning to recover. It has a good reputation. The people concerned will continue to be extremely successful bakers and they will give much pleasure to my constitutents. They will do even more damage to my hips in future.

The reality is that the House does not frame legislation for those who are bureaucrats or people who are outwith the economic situation, who are not answerable in real terms to the House. The House does not give them powers to exercise without care and without thought, and with astonishingly little awareness of the impact of their behaviour. These people must learn that they are there because we give them powers and because we want them to exercise control. The next time that they want to say that there is a real responsibility and a real problem in public health such as the expansion of the European Union, which will involve taking in the products of many more firms when we have no evidence that they will comply with our food laws, they should say what they will do and not spend all their time seeking to cause enormous problems for others who have no way of hitting back.

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