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2 Jun 2009 : Column 18WH—continued

As foreseen, an increase in light dues is now essential. What we did not foresee was that it would happen in a global recession, when investment income has virtually ceased and trade has reduced so that shipping companies are laying up vessels, rationalising routes and concentrating on larger ships. Fund income is falling and we must act to ensure that the GLAs can maintain their safety functions. I understand that the shipping industry has been hit hard; it has reacted quickly by making significant cuts. We have asked the GLAs to make cuts, to defer non-essential expenditure and to look at further efficiencies. They have made cuts of 5.6 per cent this year, but there is not such a close correlation between trade and spending, in their case. Lighthouses must be lit, radio-navigation
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signals broadcast, channels surveyed and buoys moved. We cannot avoid taking steps to maintain those safety-critical functions, and all the hon. Members who have spoken accepted that. Expenditure deferred now may well result in greater costs in a year or two. We therefore have a difficult balancing act to perform. We have received 47 responses to the consultation, and I have held four meetings with the representatives of those most affected. I am now looking very carefully at all the comments before announcing any decision. I hope to do that within a few days.

With three GLAs, and their integrated funding, we have a co-ordinated lighthouse service for the whole of the British Isles which is efficient and second to none in the world. We are nevertheless in a difficult position because since 1922 the fund has had to meet costs in two sovereign states where income does not necessarily equate to expenditure in each country. Light dues collected in the United Kingdom are being used, in part, to pay for lights in the Irish Republic. A 1985 agreement recognised that, so the Irish Government make an additional contribution towards the costs. Both Governments accept that the 1985 agreement should be changed. We have done more work and, as has been mentioned, I recently met the Irish Minster of Transport in Dublin to discuss the matter. I am pleased to say that we agreed a better formula for apportioning Irish costs on a north-south basis.

We also agreed on the need for an overall assessment of the provision of the integrated aids-to-navigation service to all regions of the UK and Ireland. An evaluation is to be undertaken to consider all aspects of delivery, including continuing increases in efficiency, potential structural improvements and the overall financing arrangements. We now have the basis for making real progress. We will make every effort to reach an agreement that is more soundly based than the old one and one that ensures a fair apportionment of funding. The Irish negotiations also raised the question of whether the present GLA structure was the best.

Mr. Brazier: I am grateful to the Minister for characteristically giving way. I wish to make two quick points. First, will he tell us whether the subjects under discussion included the pension arrangements, which form a large part of the picture? Secondly, he referred to the 1985 agreement. That was set against the background of the appalling difficulties in Northern Ireland. We were desperately dependent upon southern Ireland at the time, so we had very little leverage. In the present situation, however, we should be in a position to tell another sovereign state that it should pay its way.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point. I have asked the simplistic question: can we turn off the lights? The answer is clearly no, as it would affect shipping going to the rest of the British isles, and not only that going to Ireland. We have an agreement with the Irish Government, and we need to negotiate a way forward from that. We cannot simply say to the Irish that we no longer accept the arrangements. The discussions in Dublin nearly two weeks ago resulted in a commitment to a ratio of 85:15 in payments for this year; and we have a commitment to consider the 50:50 payments in the longer term.

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As I said, the Irish negotiations also raised the question of whether the present GLA structure is the best solution. There are good historical reasons for the position that we now find ourselves in, and we must protect the undoubted advantages that stem from the expertise and geographical knowledge to be found in each of the GLAs, a point made by a number of colleagues. However, I believe that we need to take a fundamental look at how the lighthouse service is provided, and that view is shared by the Irish Minister. Without Irish co-operation, implementing change will be more difficult. I do not intend to destroy the good service that we have, but we need to consider, in the 21st century, how it can be improved in order to achieve efficiencies that will deliver a better service.

We are already working on some matters; for instance, there will be a full review of the combined GLA fleet of ships and their management. We will be taking forward its recommendations with the GLAs. I will also be making an announcement once we have finished our analysis of the current need for funding the GLAs. That will have implications for their work programme for the coming year. Inevitably, they will have to bear some pain, but that cannot be at the expense of safety. That, in turn, will lead to the annual planning process for the three GLAs. I expect that their corporate plans will be given particularly thorough scrutiny in the autumn by the Government and the Lights Advisory Committee.

I turn to points raised during the debate. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) spoke of fishing vessels. Although smaller vessels tend to use port-provided navigations aids, they certainly rely upon GLA-provided aids outside the port and harbour limits. I heard what he had to say about DEFRA; it has given a commitment this year, but it is very much a matter for the Department in future. However, I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), will read the report of this debate, because it impacts on his area of responsibility.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon). I am glad that he was provoked into making a contribution. He is highly regarded for his scientific and engineering expertise. We now know that he is also an award-winning writer. He made some telling points, and I am grateful to him for that.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) risked provoking the legal authorities in Scotland. He obviously recognises that some of us have escaped their jurisdiction, so we would not be that worried about upsetting anyone if it led to an improved service. However, the matter will certainly be considered.

I was asked whether we will be placing the outcome of the Dublin talks in the Library. The answer is no: it is not general practice to put notes on ministerial meetings in the Library. However, I have covered some of the points made there in my speech, and more will become clear in due course.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) spoke of the threat by shipping companies to decrease calls to UK ports by 60 per cent., going instead to Europe. The Department has commissioned a report from Raven Trading to review the impact of increases in light dues, and in due course the report will be placed on the Department’s website and in the Library.
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Indications are that the argument that ships will switch to continental ports because of the cost is not supported.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about support for short sea shipping. We have discussed the matter before, and I know that he realises that the Department offers freight facility grants to equalise the cost of coastal and short sea shipping to encourage a modal shift from road to water-borne transport. We are doing what we can to support short sea shipping, both in the UK and Europe.

Mr. Brazier: I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. It is indeed true that his Department offers those grants, but will he tell us how much has been paid in grants over the last few years? I believe that it is very little.

Jim Fitzpatrick: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I understand that there are three reasons for that. The first is the complicated nature of the application procedure, and we are simplifying that. The second is people’s lack of familiarity with the grant, and we are trying to promote its availability. The third is European rules in respect of state aid. We have made strong representations in Europe, and have made some progress, to ensure that short sea shipping receives more aid from national and sovereign Governments, as we are not alone in being frustrated in our attempts to promote and support it. I accept entirely the criticism and concern that not enough is being paid out, and we are doing what we can to promote the grant and change the position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said that we need more urgency in respect of the Irish question. I hope that she accepts that my personal visit to Dublin indicates that we are taking the matter seriously, and that we have made some progress. My hon. Friend said that the regional and local knowledge of GLAs is important, and that we must recognise the economic difficulties of shipping. We appreciate the local knowledge of the GLAs; it is important, and we will take account of the many representations that we have received on that point before making our announcement. My hon. Friend also mentioned the
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Marine Navigation Bill. We, too, are disappointed that parliamentary time could not be found for the Bill, but we intend to bring it forward as soon as possible.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) makes the point that few other countries have light dues. Of the 54 major shipping nations, two thirds impose light dues of some description. He asked about the Patricia, the Trinity House flagship. It is also used for cadet training, as well as in maintaining buoys and lights. All those matters will be considered at the appropriate time. The hon. Gentleman also said that light dues must be seen in the context of other pressures on the shipping industry. That point is entirely valid and fair, and we will take account of representations from the industry in reaching a decision on light dues. We have spent much time talking to the industry over the past few months to ensure that it realises that we want to hear what it has to say. The Patricia dates from 1986, and a smaller, modern, cheaper and more flexible ship is recommended. We will be considering the implications in due course, with the review of the GLAs.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight for securing this debate. It is good to see him back in his place and at full strength, having had to battle with serious illness. I know that many of us were concerned about him, but the fact that he is here this morning and leading this debate demonstrates that he is on good form again. I welcome that, as I am sure do other Members.

I hope that I have done justice to the work of the GLAs. I trust, too, that I have given assurances that the Government are not complacent in managing the general lighthouse fund and overseeing the lighthouse service. We will be announcing the outcome of our considerations following the submissions to our consultation within a few days. I hope that the results will demonstrate that we have taken account of representations from all sides.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): May I say that I found that discussion absolutely enthralling, given that I do not have a lightship or a lighthouse in my inland midlands constituency?

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Public Analysts Service

11 am

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Olner, and I hope that you enjoy this debate too. There is certainly plenty of food in your constituency!

Food security is high on the political agenda at the moment. Population increases, and the consequent increases in prosperity and demand for food and energy, pose a huge problem in a world faced with climate change and global warming. However, we must not take our eye off the safety of our increasingly global food supplies. A succession of food scares before this Government came to power in 1997 led to the establishment, in 2000, of the Food Standards Agency, which is now the competent authority for the implementation and monitoring of food and feed law in this country. In practice, the FSA delegates many of its responsibilities. European regulation 882/2004 on food and feed controls requires adequate laboratory provision for the testing of food and animal feedstuffs throughout its member states.

In this debate, however, I want to examine the role of public analysts, who play a vital role in maintaining the safety of our food, and their relationship with the newly created FSA. Although food law is enforced by local authority trading standards and environmental health officers, the FSA monitors the performance of so-called food authorities across the UK under the Food Safety Act 1990, which draws a distinction between “analysis”, which means chemical analysis, and “examination”, which means microbiological examination. The latter is carried out, in England and Wales, by the Public Health Laboratory Service, which is funded by the Department of Health, and by public analysts in the case of food safety. In England and Wales, 460 food authorities, including 50 port authorities, also have responsibilities under the Food Safety Act.

Formal samples are divided into three parts: one for the sampling officer, one for the food owner and another for the food authority. The third part may be sent to the laboratory of the Government chemist, which acts as a referee in cases of dispute. Furthermore, the Agriculture Act 1970 requires local authorities to appoint an agricultural analyst to control the composition, labelling, sampling and analysis of fertilisers and animal feedstuffs, including pet foods. In England and Wales, the food authorities that carry out food standards enforcement are generally the same as those that carry out those fertiliser and animal feed duties. Public analysts are suitably qualified to carry out duties under the Agriculture Act.

Food, of course, is big business. It is estimated to be worth £150 billion annually, but only £8 million is spent on ensuring food safety through routine sampling and food analysis. The average amount spent in England and Wales, excluding London, on food analysis by public analysts is 10p per person per year, but the figure is as little as 2p per person in some areas and compares very unfavourably with the rest of Europe. For example, the Republic of Ireland spends 46p per person per annum. On average, one in five food samples tested attracts an adverse report owing to labelling or compositional faults. However, there is no centrally co-ordinated, strategic direction or funding of the UK’s official food control laboratories, and there are no
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nationally agreed guideline budgets for sampling and analysis or targets for risk-based sampling levels to support essential food control work.

In the 19th century, there was a major problem with food adulteration, which often led to death or ill health. From 1860 onwards, there were several Acts of Parliament aimed at reducing or eliminating the problems and at improving nutrition. The first public analysts, originally employed by private organisations, were appointed in 1860. Previously, they had been deploying a range of analytical skills to the products of the chemical industry, and they extended their skills, which were limited to examination by microscope and simple chemical tests, to measuring and identifying the various contaminants of food samples.

Large-scale food adulteration, whether deliberate or accidental, remains with us today. The presence of dioxin in pork and lamb of Irish origin is a recent example. In 2008, Chinese milk distributors discovered that they could water down their milk without altering the protein content analysed by a nitrogen assay by adding a chemical called melamine, of which there had been a glut on the Chinese market. Consequently, its price had dropped significantly. According to the World Health Organisation, six children died and 50,000 people became ill as a result of that adulteration. The factory manager in China was, of course, sentenced to death. Scientists have now devised new tests for the presence of melamine in milk and foods containing milk, such as chocolate. However, at the end of 2008, one large UK port authority had to contact laboratories throughout the UK in order to find just one that could carry out, in a timely manner, analysis for melamine in foodstuffs imported from China.

The cost to UK industry, in 2003, of recalling the 600 different products containing Worcester sauce—not to be confused with Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce—contaminated with the Sudan 1 red food dye in imported chilli powder was between £100 million and £200 million. Noteworthy is the fact that the contamination was actually discovered in Italy, not Rochdale, where the sauce is manufactured.

When food science became big business, public analysts began aiding, as expert witnesses, the prosecution of offenders in court. In 1898, a new qualification was introduced by the Royal Institute of Chemistry to examine the competence of our public analysts. The mastership in chemical analysis—the MChemA—which has existed in its present form since 2000, is today a professional qualification of the Royal Society of Chemistry. I must declare an interest: I am a fellow of the RSC, a chartered chemist and one of the RSC’s parliamentary advisers—unpaid, I hasten to add. The Institute of Food Science and Technology regards the MChemA as the essential and mandatory qualification for public analysts, as does the Food Safety (Sampling and Qualifications) Regulations 1990. However, the FSA believes that this postgraduate qualification, and the difficulty of acquiring it, is causing difficulties in the recruitment of public analysts, and the Government believe that the requirement for a food analyst is too restrictive under present EU legislation.

On 11 February, in a letter to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), my right hon. Friend the Minister, who I am very pleased to see in the ministerial chair this morning, wrote:

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That is a worrying statement and suggests an end to the highly professional and highly trained public analysts as we have known them since 1860. It also indicates the possibility of more privatisation of the food analysis service. Will the Minister say whence these proposals have come, how much consultation there has been, how highly trained she expects analysts to be in the future and whether they will be adequately trained to represent themselves in the courts of law?

By contrast, the Association of Public Analysts believes that the MChemA and its holders demonstrate unique competencies in the application of analytical chemistry in the ever-changing context of food law and, more importantly, that they are able to present their findings in criminal courts. Furthermore, removing the need for this qualification and allowing official samples to be sent to other types of laboratory will not prevent the continued decline in food sampling and analysis.

Sadly, over the past 50 years, financial constraints imposed on local authorities, which hold responsibility for the majority of services, including maintenance of the ever more costly laboratory services, have led to such a decline in services that only 38 officially appointed public analysts are employed across the United Kingdom. In the past 15 years alone, the number of public analysts has been reduced by almost 50 per cent. Another problem is that 27 of the remaining public analysts are over the age of 50, and the omens are not good for recruitment. The lack of a career pathway in the public analysts service may lead to the loss of the MChemA, the professional qualification organised by the RSC.

In 1959, 150 public analysts worked out of 45 laboratories. In 1997, there were 32 laboratories. Today, only 21 laboratories remain and five of those form part of one private sector organisation. The remaining laboratories suffer from a lack of investment, and it is inevitable that more will close in the near future. Some of the instruments that have to be provided for the public analysts service today are extremely expensive indeed.

The most recent closure was a private sector facility in Birkenhead, with the redundancy of two public analysts. Also, recently, Aberdeen city council has agonised over the potential closure of its laboratory, but has decided, at least for the time being, to keep it open.

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