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2 Jun 2009 : Column 32WH—continued

11.39 am

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this debate. The great value of such a debate is that it sheds light on an area of policy and practice that all too often gets ignored at a national level. It forces all of us to focus for a while on something that is clearly not in a fit condition and that needs a thorough reassessment by Government. It is important that the hon. Gentleman secured this debate and I congratulate him on it. I also join in the thanks to Duncan Campbell, who has clearly been very busy briefing hon. Members for this debate. He is the vice-president of the Association of Public Analysts and his passion for, and the central importance of, his work is clear.

As the hon. Members for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) pointed out, we are talking about threats to life as a result of a range of constantly present food scares. The main purpose of my contribution is to call for the Government to undertake a thorough reassessment of the current statutory framework and of the way in which the service is provided across the country, so that we ensure that it is fit for purpose and that it meets the risks and threats on which other hon. Members have commented. As part of that reassessment, it would be worth while for the Minister to agree to meet representatives of the APA, perhaps with an all-party delegation, to continue the discussion that has been initiated in this valuable debate. I would be extremely grateful if the Minister responded to that request.

I should like briefly to touch on the existing legal framework. The FSA, which was established under the Food Standards Act 1999, has a legal responsibility to carry out its functions

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That is the FSA’s legal function and duty. However, as other hon. Members have said, the responsibility for carrying out those functions is delegated to local authorities. The FSA therefore has the legal duty and responsibility, but not the means by which to ensure that it meets it.

Responsibility is delegated to local authorities in two ways. When there is a two-tier structure, district councils are responsible through their environmental health departments for food safety. I am familiar with that policy because in a former life, I was a solicitor for a local authority and I prosecuted food hygiene cases—there were some wonderful cases—including one in which an Indian restaurant was charged with using a cricket bat to stir the curry. Anyone involved in the service will know of horrific examples of breaches of the most basic food hygiene standards, and I pay tribute to the work of those professionals. From my experience—I worked for Norwich city council—I can say that they are a highly dedicated group who provided an independent service for the safety of the public in the city. As I understand it from Duncan Campbell, samples that are acquired through district councils’ work are sent to the Health Protection Agency laboratories at no cost to the district council, so there is no constraint on ensuring that sufficient sampling is undertaken to protect the public.

Separate from the work of environmental health departments is the work undertaken by county councils in two-tier structures or by unitary authorities, which involves food standards, labelling, contamination and so forth. Where such bodies require sampling to be done, they have to pay the public analysts to do it, and therein lies the problem. With local authorities under increasing financial constraints, the temptation is to reduce the amount of sampling, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East graphically demonstrated. The horror is that many local authorities undertake literally no sampling, with public safety and valuable sampling work subject to a postcode lottery and dependent on whether local authorities have the necessary financial capacity or political interest.

Superficially, this is an easy area in which to make cuts if a local authority is under pressure. The crisis comes when there is a massive challenge to food hygiene and food safety, but then it is too late. The headlines in the national press will ask “Where are the analysts?”, and the answer will be that they have all gone because of financial cutbacks. This debate is therefore important because it gives us the chance to highlight a decline that has been under way for a considerable time and which must surely now be addressed.

Public analysts undertake vital work, and we have heard about the scare about melamine in milk from China, but when we talk to someone such as Duncan Campbell, we hear about the other, more proactive work that analysts undertake. Diet is a big issue, and the FSA is doing important work on reducing the salt content of food. It is also looking at other ingredients in food to ensure that our diet improves, particularly to address the growing crisis of obesity that exists in the whole of the western world.

Duncan Campbell talked to me about the work that he and his colleagues were doing with bakers in their area—in Barnsley, I think—to reduce the salt content of bread. That is good, proactive, local work, which is making a real difference to the diets of people who are
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often in quite impoverished communities. However, if the analysts are not there, the work is not done, and the effects will be seen in public health.

Duncan Campbell also talked about looking at food colourings in Indian takeaways. He said that the colouring added to chicken tikka takeaways can have a massive effect on hyperactivity in children. Again, that is an important public health issue, and he and his colleagues are working on it.

As other contributors to the debate have said, the decline in the service has been under way for a considerable time. There have been problems with recruitment, and there was the threat to the laboratory in Aberdeen. The number of public analysts is down to 38 across the country, and their age profile is also an issue. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East talked about a point of crisis, with sampling activity down by 16 per cent. across the country and several local authorities undertaking no sampling work at all.

What do we do about this? I have no ready prescriptions to offer. Like other speakers, I am conscious of the fact that the food industry’s value in the UK is enormous— £150 billion—and that a remarkably small amount is spent on food safety and independent analysis. One option that has been suggested is a 1 per cent. levy on food advertising. Another is to ensure that public funds are made available from taxation for this vital work. Whatever conclusion is reached, we can all agree that this work must be protected.

I conclude, therefore, by repeating my plea for a thorough audit of what is happening around the country, where, as we have discovered today, enormous and unjustified variations in practice exist. Once that audit has been completed, we need a thorough reassessment of the statutory framework, and of this arbitrary divide between district and county councils and between the work done by public laboratories at no cost to local authorities and that which incurs a charge and therefore places a constraint on financially hard-pressed local authorities. That arbitrary divide is open to question and must form part of a thorough reassessment to protect both the food analysts service and the public with regard to the food that they eat.

11.50 am

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): It is a pleasure to respond to this very important debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing it. Clearly he is an expert in this field. I also congratulate the Association of Public Analysts on briefing nearly everyone in the Chamber—apart from me! I shall not take it personally, however; it made me do a little more homework last night.

I did not have to dig too far into my memory bank to remember working with public analysts, not least around December 2005, following the Buncefield explosions—there were three of them—in my constituency, which severely contaminated my constituency, especially the public drinking water. Furthermore, as a former firefighter—back in very different times—I remember how, when damping down and finishing off, very often guys in different sorts of hard hats would come in and take samples, especially if there were problems related to asbestos or lead poisoning.

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I pay tribute to the work done by the analysts. When I started looking into the reasons for this debate, I was surprised by the decline or crisis, referred to earlier, in the skills that these scientists bring to the public sector. I had to delve quite deeply into the reasons for this current situation. We heard from other hon. Members about the work that analysts do, but we must indicate that this is not just about food, although clearly, as others have said, their work with food is vital, given that food is becoming ever more complicated and prepared food ever more common—people seem to have a taste for it, which is why the supermarkets and producers are selling and making more of it.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) referred to two supermarkets whose products were tested; it was frightening to discover how much what was in them differed from what the packaging said. Well, I am not frightened to name them: the pies were from Waitrose and the second supermarket was Sainsbury’s. I do not want anyone thinking that these were tiny companies or small back-shop organisations; these are major companies that produce and retail their own products. It is important, not to name and shame them, but that the public do not think that only small companies are likely to do these sorts of things.

Analysts have other duties, however. I alluded to their work in testing public water supplies and testing for asbestos, but they also test other things that we use on a day-to-day basis, such as local swimming pools, lead fumes, industrial insolvents, children’s toys for lead content, household and industrial cleaning materials and—believe it or not—even pet food. They regularly test not just food, but many different things in our environment—or at least I thought that they were being tested regularly, until this debate, but it is now clear that there is a postcode lottery with regard to the availability of analysts in specific areas, and clearly in some areas they are not available at all. How does that fall within the legislation? If some areas are not testing at all, how are they fulfilling their requirements under the legislation, or are we turning a blind eye?

In addition, why has the decision been made to downgrade the qualification required for those scientists? The service was set up so that they would be highly qualified scientists, with a master’s degree. I am not a scientist, but I understand that that is where we are. They are scientists who wanted to specialise in this field. I wonder whether the decision has to do with the shortage of scientists not just in this area, but across the board. I declare an interest. My daughter is doing a science degree, and I cannot believe the interest that she has had from different organisations around the country and abroad simply because she is doing a science degree. She is very flattered, but I have to ask why we are so desperate for scientists in a country that has a history of producing some of the greatest scientists in the world. Perhaps the Minister will address the issue of why we have such a problem with regard to scientists.

The decline in the number of analysts is happening today. When I put my speech together earlier on, I understood that we had 41; by the time I had walked into the room and sat down, we had 38. I am not nit-picking about the numbers, but we obviously have a crisis, which the Minister needs to address.

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The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) said that we should have an immediate review. I tend to agree until I consider the fact that Alan Turner, OBE, conducted a review of the service 10 years ago. Mr. Turner made a series of recommendations to the Government, none of which has been implemented. Two years ago, the Food Standards Agency started a review at the request, I think, of the Association of Public Analysts. Where is it? Can the Minister tell us when it is likely to be published? It is very important that it is published as soon as possible, before we get into a situation of terminal decline and we do not physically have anything to review. I am thinking of what will happen if the decline carries on at its present speed and there is more delay in publishing the review. Whether or not the Government accept the review when it is published—it is being done at arm’s length, by the Food Standards Agency—it is important that the country knows, and the scientists know, exactly what the Government’s position is with regard to how we are moving forward.

[David Taylor in the Chair]

It is also very important that the public have confidence that the Government understand what is occurring, and have confidence in their services locally. The most disturbing thing that I have heard this morning is the extent of the postcode lottery. People in one part of the country could be relatively safe with regard to what they are eating, consuming, breathing or drinking, but in other parts of the country people may not be. I do not want to scare anyone—I do not want to scaremonger at all—but it is crucial that in the 21st century the public have full confidence that the Government of the day are protecting them. That is the duty; it is what the legislation was put in place for, and it is imperative that it is being done.

I am not being critical of the Food Standards Agency behind its back—the agency knows that I have spoken to it before—in saying that I think it needs to concentrate on its core activities. It has only a limited capacity and a limited number of things that it can physically do. Therefore, the message that I have given the agency privately and which I am giving it publicly today is this: please concentrate on your core activity, which is the public safety of food, so that the public can have confidence in that. I know that the agency would love to do many other things; it would love to tinker with other things and put its fingers in lots of different pies. However, I ask it to come back to its core activity. Its job is to protect the public. That is the job of the Government as well. I would be very interested to know how we got into the current position, when the review will be published and whether the Government are likely to implement in the near future the recommendations that were made to them 10 years ago.

11.59 am

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Dawn Primarolo): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing the debate. He is very knowledgeable about the subject. He appreciates the complexity and range of the issues involved in protecting the public. He understands which issues fall into the remit of the Health Protection Agency, environmental health, local authorities or food protection. I agree with him about the importance of the work of public analysts in protecting consumers and preserving public health. The FSA is addressing that with the
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future career structures and qualifications for the service. I will come back to that because he raised a number of questions on that, as did my other hon. Friends.

Dr. Iddon: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Dawn Primarolo: I will, but I have hardly started.

Dr. Iddon: Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Royal Society of Chemistry, which is responsible for validating the MChemA, will be consulted? My understanding is that, as of today, it has not been consulted.

Dawn Primarolo: I give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance on that. If he will allow me, I will deliver my speech in two parts. I will first discuss the importance of public analysis and the work that is going on, look forward to what else the service could do and consider the types of qualifications we would need. The second half will deal specifically with the role of the pre-eminent qualification, which will remain pre-eminent, and the consultation that needs to take place. I will also pick up on comments made by other hon. Members.

As has been mentioned, there are currently about 900,000 cases a year of food-borne disease in the UK. Every year, about 500 people die because of what they have eaten. As my hon. Friend said, new challenges over food safety have developed over the past few decades. As production methods, supply chains and food technologies have evolved, the response required has become much more complex. The approaches needed to reduce health risks from contamination or adulteration and to protect consumers are becoming increasingly specialised. We must ensure that the claims made by food producers are subject to robust scientific scrutiny. The contributions of all hon. Members have focused on how we can take that forward and ensure that it continues.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, European law states that the FSA must designate official control laboratories to carry out analysis of official control samples. It is true that we have seen a significant reduction in laboratory numbers since the mid-1950s. It is also true that the volume of work commissioned by local authorities has fallen considerably. The FSA has investigated and continues to investigate those matters. It advises me that the current level of laboratory provision is adequate. I think my hon. Friend will agree with the caveat that comparing the services of the 1950s and today is not comparing like with like. There are several reasons for that because the service has evolved in recent years.

First and foremost, the UK has moved from a scatter-gun approach to sampling to a more targeted and risk-based approach. As my hon. Friend is aware, in the past local authorities traditionally operated independently of each other. They selected a shopping basket of products for sampling based on local concerns. That meant that authorities in adjoining areas could have run tests on products from exactly the same source. As a crude example, several local authorities could conceivably have sampled food coming from the same warehouse at the same time and using the same manufacturing process. What happens now is that local authorities co-ordinate their efforts through the food liaison group run by the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, which established a national sampling programme and
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shares evidence. That reduces duplication between councils. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) described with reference to his constituency, that has led in some areas to an amalgamation of laboratories to give critical mass and make it possible to take the work forward.

Mr. Kidney: Does my right hon. Friend accept the statistic that some local authorities carried out no sampling at all in an entire year, and is she prepared to say that that means there was no risk in those areas?

Dawn Primarolo: I am saying that with the mechanism for areas to share information—my hon. Friend gave examples about the combination of authorities—information can be shared for the purpose of prevention. I do not underestimate the importance of sampling, but I am trying to describe a system of information-sharing and an approach that ensures information is shared.

Mr. Illsley: Will the Minister give way?

Mike Penning: Will the Minister give way?

Dawn Primarolo: May I just finish my point, as I want to make sure that I answer the important points that were raised about how to take things forward? There are still misunderstandings about what is intended, and I want to put those to rest so that we can proceed with exactly the type of agenda that my hon. Friend set out.

Mr. Illsley: My right hon. Friend referred to a national sampling programme, and what she said is an argument for a national system, in which the work is taken away from the local authorities and given to a national body, which would co-ordinate sampling throughout the country.

Dawn Primarolo: That may be so, but under the current law local authorities have dealt with the matter, and they want to keep the power. The analysts are not public sector analysts—I believe there are four or five and the rest are in the private sector. They are independent of those requesting the sample and those for whom the sampling is done. There are important reasons for that independence, and we need to think carefully about how it works. As to their future role, I want to give examples in a moment of additional qualifications that might be suitable; that may offer a way forward. As well as boosting efficiency, the organisation, through the co-ordination of local authorities, can reduce work load.

Mike Penning: The Minister is being generous in giving way.

I accept that we do not want duplication, and that, if a manufacturer is producing something that will go to different areas, co-ordination is perfectly right for that. However, that does not address the role of local authorities in relation to small restaurants in their jurisdiction. It is not applicable. In areas where there are no inspections at all, it is not a question of doing things in a co-ordinated way; it is a question of nothing at all happening in relation to smaller cases. As the hon. Member for Stafford asked, how can places be safe, if they are not being tested?

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