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Westminster Hall

Thursday 17 October 2013

[Mr Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]

Coastguard (Maritime Incident Response Group)

[Relevant documents:Sixth report of the Transport Committee, Coastguard, Emergency Towing Vessels and the Maritime Incident Response Group, HC 647, and the Government Response, HC 1018.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Stephen Hammond.)

1.30 pm

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, and to debate the Select Committee on Transport’s second report on the coastguard service since the 2010 election. I pay tribute to the nation’s coastguards—both professional staff and volunteers—who provide an essential emergency service, protecting life and limb at sea throughout the year in all weathers.

Last year, Her Majesty’s Coastguard dealt with 2,859 incidents—a 23% increase on the previous year— including rescuing swimmers, divers and people falling off cliffs, cut off by tides and endangered by boat failures. The changes are wide-ranging and involve the maritime rescue co-ordination centres, search and rescue and the maritime incident response group, which deals with firefighting and chemical hazards. I am concerned about all those aspects of the service, and I know that there are ongoing issues, in particular about arrangements for emergency towing vessels.

Today, however, I will focus on changes to the maritime rescue co-ordination centres, which handle calls for assistance and co-ordinate rescues. Reform has been discussed for several years, and the current proposals date back to 2010. The proposals raise major concerns, which is why the Transport Committee has paid close attention to them. We published our first report in 2011 and followed it up in 2012, and we are raising the issue again here today.

In 2010, there were 18 centres spread around the UK coastline, of which the Government proposed to close 10. Their work was to be taken over by the two new 24-hour maritime operations centres in Aberdeen and the Solent area. Five co-ordination centres would remain open during daylight hours only. Under those plans, the number of coastguards would fall from 596 to 370 by 2014, a reduction of 38%.

The main rationale for the changes was the claim that individual co-ordination centres were largely independent of each other and that, as a result, the system as a whole lacked resilience. If a centre was affected by a power cut or overwhelmed by work, we were told, other coastguard stations could do little to help. The proposed maritime operations centre would be able to deal with incidents all around the country and would be able to allocate work to remaining co-ordination centres to iron out peaks and troughs in work load.

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The proposals unleashed a storm of protest. There was alarm about the potential loss of crucial local knowledge, particularly in parts of Wales and Scotland where local landmarks can have more than one name in different languages. Local knowledge includes awareness of place names, dialects, tides and currents, geography and the volunteer rescuers available in the area for which the coastguard is responsible. Claims that such local knowledge could be replaced by technology were met with incredulity.

There was alarm, too, about the concept of daylight-only coastguard stations. Would it really be safe to hand over co-ordination of a major incident to new staff, perhaps hundreds of miles away, because it was time to finish work for the day and nightfall had come? Redundancy plans unsettled staff, as did talk of redefining roles, grades and terms and conditions. Many coastguards faced a choice between accepting a new role at a new maritime operations centre in a different location or leaving the service.

In our original 2011 inquiry, we visited coastguards in Falmouth, the Clyde and Stornoway and spoke to coastguards from many other co-ordination centres. We shared many of their concerns about the original plans. In particular, we asked the Government to reconsider introducing daylight-only co-ordination centres, because of the difficulty of handing over rescues. We also highlighted concerns about the loss of local knowledge and the limitations of technological alternatives. I will return to that issue shortly.

The Government published a revised plan in July 2011, which took account of some of our concerns. That plan is now being implemented, but disquiet remains. There will be one maritime operations centre in Fareham, backed up by a co-ordination centre in Dover and eight other co-ordination centres. Eight centres will close; Clyde, Yarmouth and Forth have already shut down. The remaining centres will be open around the clock. The Government have abandoned the concept of daylight-only centres, and I welcome their change of mind.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The hon. Lady is making a good speech, highlighting the Government’s indecisive “suck it and see, make it up as you go along” approach to maritime coastguard stations in 2011. The same thing is happening to the emergency towing vessels. In the report’s conclusion, the Transport Committee asks the Government to explain how an emergency towing vessel stationed in the Northern Isles can serve the west coast effectively. Is that not a mirror image of what the hon. Lady outlined in respect of the coastguard stations?

Mrs Ellman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He highlights a crucial issue causing major concerns that have not yet been resolved.

To return to coastguards and co-ordination centres, under the revised proposals, the number of professional coastguards will fall to 436. The new maritime operations centre was due to be operational by April 2014. That has now been delayed until September 2014. Co-ordination centres at Solent, Portland, Brixham, Liverpool, Swansea and Thames are due to close after that.

We published a second report on the revised proposals in December 2012, and we continue to receive deeply disturbing information from coastguards about staffing

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and morale in the service. It is to those issues that I now turn. The Committee accepted that there is a case for a national maritime operations centre to manage particularly large or difficult incidents, which could overwhelm an individual co-ordination centre or two centres working together. However, we remain unclear about what coastguards at the national centre would do at times when such an emergency was not taking place. Coastguards giving evidence to us said that they had no idea how the new maritime operations centre and the co-ordination centres would work together.

In their reply to our report, the Government spelled out in more detail what they saw as the main responsibilities of the maritime operations centre, particularly in co-ordinating the work of coastguards across the country. The recent agreement on the roles and responsibilities of coastguards under the new system might also bring greater clarity in this area. Will the Minister explain how the new system will work—not just during a major incident, but at quieter times?

We heard strong criticism of the decision to close three maritime resource co-ordination centres before the new system is in place. For example, Shetland coastguards explained that they had to use their own time to gain local knowledge of parts of the northern Scotland coastline for which they would be responsible after the closure of the Forth station. There have been continuing concerns that some co-ordination centres are now severely overstretched.

We were told in March this year that, already, staffing at Belfast co-ordination centre had been below the risk-assessed staffing level on 124 occasions out of 158 shifts. At the same time, Yarmouth co-ordination centre, which has since closed, was moved to daylight-only operations because of staff shortages. It is testament to the professionalism of the service that the closures have been accommodated without major incident.

It was widely believed that ministerial statements and Maritime and Coastguard Agency documents had given a commitment that the maritime rescue co-ordination centres would not be closed until the new system was put in place. This was denied, but the language used by the Minister’s predecessor in the House and some of the documents published by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency back in 2011 were at best ambiguous.

One key area of the dispute is the importance of local knowledge. Coastguards emphasise its importance in their work, and they are tested on their local situational knowledge. Knowing that a particular rock or headland has three names in two languages can help to ensure that assistance reaches people in distress as quickly as possible. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency discounted its significance, considering that local knowledge could be stored electronically, so that it could be used by any coastguard based anywhere. Indeed, when we heard evidence from the chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, he seemed to disregard the importance of critical local knowledge, which is about geography, tides and currents, language and dialect, and the availability of additional volunteer sources for rescue in the area concerned.

Coastguards remain concerned about the issue. They challenge whether the knowledge built up over many years by experienced coastguards working in their areas

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can be replaced by databases. Coastguards taking on new areas of responsibility will still be assessed on their understanding of local factors, although it is hard to see how this will apply to the coastguards in the new marine operations centre. Perhaps the Minister will explain what importance he attaches to coastguards having local knowledge and how it will work under the new system and be tested.

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend—I sense that she might be concluding. Her Committee has obviously done another thorough job in monitoring the good work of the shipping Minister and his officials under her excellent leadership, but can she give us a sense of what progress she thinks has been made compared with where we were last year and the year before? Is her Committee more worried about the situation? Is there the same level of anxiety, or is she more reassured because of what she has heard in the various examinations that her Committee has undertaken?

Mrs Ellman: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and for the excellent work that he did in a previous capacity. It is good to hear from him. I remain concerned about the situation. There is now more clarity about what exactly is going to happen, but major questions remain. That is why I am pursuing them today. I hope the Minister will be able to give reassuring answers.

Staffing and morale were both raised with the Committee as significant problems. We heard concerns about the level of vacancies in the service, the proportion of coastguards on fixed-term contracts and the loss of experienced staff. The coastguard service’s vacancy rate doubled between December 2010 and November 2012, when it stood at 13.8%. In other words, nearly one in seven posts in the service was vacant. Can the Minister tell us what the current vacancy rate is?

Going back to my hon. Friend’s comments, I continue to receive representations from coastguards. These include allegations of stress caused by understaffing, lack of leave and unreliable communications equipment. The high level of vacancies puts strain on coastguards, who must work harder to fill the gaps. What assessment has the Minister made of the high level of vacancies? Has sickness absence increased? Does the Department even monitor coastguards’ morale? What actions are management taking to help staff get through what is obviously a difficult and unsettling period of change?

Low morale and disillusionment with management were reflected in all the evidence the Committee received from coastguards. We have received further correspondence that reinforces that since our report was published. For example, we were told that the new contract offered to the coastguard

“increases the number of days worked, reduces the number of days off, reduces the annual hours leave, reduces the opportunity for leave, and reduces the pay by regrading the majority of the older staff to a lower level of pay, capping the shift allowance at a low rate and removing allowances for shoes and telephone line rental—all in all, these changes are unworkable to existing staff and are surely a case for constructive dismissal”.

We have also heard complaints from volunteer coastguards about the operation of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Again, long-standing volunteer coastguards feel that they are no longer valued and

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are subsequently leaving the service. I have received representations from my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) that nine out of 13 volunteer staff at the Walney coastguard have resigned, claiming they have been bullied by MCA staff. Will there be an independent investigation into that? It is clearly a matter of grave concern.

Our report concluded that the loss of experienced coastguards was one of the most significant risks to the successful implementation of the Government’s modernisation programme. Everything we have heard since has confirmed that view. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency now has to manage another round of MRCC closures and find sufficient qualified staff to fill positions in the new maritime operations centre. This is a major challenge. Many experienced coastguards may prefer to leave the service than move to Fareham to take on new roles. Will the Minister tell us when recruitment of MOC staff will begin and what mix of skill and experience he will want staff working there to have? What assistance will be available to coastguards who wish to relocate to Fareham?

The coastguard reform programme will have been stretched over five years when it finally comes to an end in 2015. That is five years of uncertainty and worry for coastguards about their jobs, pay, and terms and conditions. My concern is that by the time the new system is operational, many experienced coastguards will have left, weakening an essential emergency service. I hope that the Minister can demonstrate today that he is actively trying to ensure that that does not happen.

The coastguard service is about saving lives. It is staffed by dedicated people. It deserves the unequivocal support of the Minister and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. I hope the Minister can assure us today that he is committed to securing the confidence of those who work in this essential service, so that the public’s safety can continue to be protected.

1.47 pm

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): It is a great pleasure to contribute to this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman). She knows that I grew up in Liverpool. I lived in Formby for a while, so I am familiar with Blundellsands, where the Liverpool station is based.

There is no specific co-ordination centre in my constituency, but the stations of Yarmouth and Thames both serve the Suffolk coast, stretching from Felixstowe up to beyond Southwold. However, I have excellent volunteer coastguards. I have met the Lowestoft and Southwold branch several times and I follow them on Twitter. They are very informative and they work closely with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Such brave volunteers deserve our praise and thanks for the difficult job that they do so willingly.

When the issue erupted, thanks to the Government’s proposals early on in the Parliament, MPs learned a lot about how such an important service works. Admittedly, it took a lot of explaining to understand it, but I am one of the MPs who, having learnt more about it and having made representations about aspects of concern in parts of the country, ended up supporting the revised changes that the Government came up with.

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Sadly, even now, it seems that we have not been able to communicate exactly how the coastguard service works and the fact that the people who make the rescues locally are the volunteers—the people of the community—who have local knowledge, as opposed to the people in the centres, who of course use their local knowledge and other skills to deploy the right resources accordingly. When I learned that fact, it gave me more confidence. When I learned about the extra training that was to be given and the extra equipment that was to be provided, that gave me even more confidence that we were doing a lot more to support our volunteer coastguard rescue officers on the front line. And thus it has proved. I am confident in their abilities. I have met them at Southwold on various occasions. I did not meet them when they had been called into action, most notably earlier in the summer when they worked closely with the RNLI to rescue more than 50 people off the coast at Southwold, but they continue to have my full support.

I want to pick up a few specific points raised by the hon. Lady in her report, and to say more about local understanding and resilience. I understand that several people have transferred from the Yarmouth station to the Humber station, so the Government policy of keeping one of two pairing centres open, and encouraging and helping staff to move if they so wish, certainly appears to have happened in our case. That is useful because it not only keeps those people in employment, but builds greater knowledge about the wider area that the centres cover.

To step back and wear a non-constituency hat, there is a lot to be said for trying to increase the resilience of our national network of information, because it does not take much—someone being off ill or whatever—for there suddenly to be gaps in knowledge. That is not unique, dare I say it, to the coastguard system, but it is one reason why many of our emergency services, such as the NHS or the police, put as much information as possible into a common format or database that other people can draw on. That does not mean that people never speak to each other, but it is deliberately done to make services more resilient.

Will you allow me to stray slightly to illustrate the point, Mr Rosindell? An extreme example is that the Care Quality Commission often picks up issues about people relying on information being passed verbally in hospitals, instead of their documenting it to provide extra safety for the patient. That is a real parallel to the coastguard service. We should not get too hung up about local knowledge: of course it is important, but people do not need to know every metre or yard of the coastline to be aware of the key problems in a given area. The areas off Southwold and near Felixstowe ferry have particularly difficult currents, but that kind of knowledge should be assimilated by a broader range of people, so that we are not reliant on a relatively small group of coastguard co-ordinating officers in our Yarmouth and Thames centres.

I am reassured by the important point made by the Select Committee’s recommendation in paragraph 27, that

“any work to develop and foster local knowledge should be organised by…management, properly scheduled, and remunerated, not left to coastguards to organise themselves when they are off duty.”

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I fully agree that we have to build up such knowledge. I am also reassured by paragraph 36 of the Government response, which mentions exercises, full pairing days, visits for staff, and visits and briefings as part of working with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Those are important parts of on-the-job training, and the Select Committee makes the very fair point that people should not be expected to pick up such knowledge by themselves or by chance.

Of course, the test will come with the big incident that, thank God, has not happened yet—we hope it never does—and I appreciate people’s concerns about wanting resources to be deployed as quickly as possible in such an incident. I am confident that more such centralisation, with a wider network of centres, but without going from the former situation to having only two centres open 24/7, will provide the kind of resilience in which people can have trust. It will also build knowledge to ensure that people are safe 24/7, not just when a coastguard co-ordinating centre happens to be open. I am pleased to have been able to review the report.

1.54 pm

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the Transport Committee on its report and on paying close attention to so important an issue, as well as on securing this debate. I join the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), in paying tribute to both professional and volunteer coastguards—the professional rescue services and the volunteer lifeboat crews, who devote a huge amount of time to rescuing people from the waters around our coasts.

The Scottish Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, has investigated the implications of the changes for the coastguard service in Scottish waters. The Forth and Clyde coastguard stations were the first to close, with their functions being transferred to Aberdeen, Belfast and Stornoway. During its inquiry, the Scottish Affairs Committee found that the Government had clearly failed to carry public opinion with them on changes to the coastguard service, and recommended that the Government

“do more to provide reassurance to seafarers who may need to contact the coastguard in an emergency.”

The lack of public confidence in the changes has not been helped by the fact that Belfast, Stornoway and Aberdeen have consistently been understaffed since the closure of the Forth and Clyde stations. In response to a question from the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), the Minister placed in the Library a table showing the number of coastguard watches that were staffed below risk levels during the year from May 2012 to May 2013. The table makes uncomfortable reading, particularly in relation to Belfast. From December 2012, when the Clyde station closed, to May 2013, Belfast was staffed below the risk assessed level 71% of the time, which is extremely worrying. During the same period, its partner station, Stornoway, was understaffed 17% of the time. The table does not tell us how often Belfast and Stornoway were both understaffed at the same time, but the figures show that that must inevitably have happened on several occasions.

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For the east coast, the figures are slightly better, but they are still worrying. From the closure of the Forth station in September 2012 to May 2013, Aberdeen was understaffed 52% of the time. The only bright note is that its partner station at Shetland was hardly ever understaffed.

Mr MacNeil: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting those figures, which are in the Library. The conclusion that I draw from them is that confidence in Maritime and Coastguard Agency management is not what it should be. I lack confidence in it, as I think do people in my community, due to the very figures that he mentions.

Mr Reid: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the community does not have confidence in the new system. The seafaring community was very nervous about the closure of the Clyde station, particularly because of the loss of local knowledge. When figures show that Belfast, which has become responsible for most of the Clyde area, was understaffed 71% of the time during the six months following the closure of the Clyde station, that clearly increases the seafaring community’s lack of confidence. I hope that the Government will address that point.

More positively, I am not aware of any incidents since the closure of the Forth or Clyde stations in which understaffing at coastguard co-ordination centres has caused a problem in responding to incidents. That is a tribute to the professionalism of the coastguard staff, but we cannot be complacent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) said, the system will be put to the test when there is a major incident. We all hope that there will not be one, but one will inevitably happen at some point, and that will test the system. I hope that the co-ordination centres are all fully staffed before that happens. The Government have undertaken recruitment programmes, and I hope that the Minister will report that they have been successful and that understaffed watches are a thing of the past.

Concern about the loss of local knowledge was one of the main reasons why seafarers were not convinced about the reorganisation of the coastguard. I hope that both new recruits and existing staff now covering a different area will have been trained and tested on their knowledge of the area for which they are responsible. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House on that.

I am pleased that the Government have listened to the concerns that were expressed and have arranged for two emergency towing vessels to be available in Scottish waters. However, there is concern on the west coast that both vessels are based in the northern isles, and that one is no longer based in Stornoway. I note from the Government’s response that in moderate sea conditions it will take approximately eight to nine hours for an emergency towing vessel to arrive at a position between North Minch and the Little Minch and, in heavier weather when an incident is more likely to occur, it will take about 11 to 12 hours. It will take even longer for the emergency towing vessel to get to the southern Hebrides in my constituency. I hope the Government will have another think about basing an emergency towing vessel in Stornoway and bear in mind the extreme environmental damage that an oil spill would cause. They should compare the costs of a clean-up with the costs of an emergency towing vessel based in Stornoway. After all, prevention is better than cure.

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Mr MacNeil: Iceland, which has suffered major financial trauma in the past five years, has actually gone in the opposite direction from that taken by the UK Government in northern and western Scotland. Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that a huge error has been made here and that the calculation that should be done is the ongoing cost versus the cost of any incident that could occur? I have a terrible feeling that the Government are spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar and that we really should have that emergency towing vessel in Stornoway now.

Mr Reid: As I have said, prevention is definitely better than cure. It is important to stress that there are two emergency towing vessels in Scottish waters—the same number as there were before—so the Government clearly listened to the concerns that many of us expressed. None the less, the hon. Gentleman makes the important point that one of the vessels should be based in Stornoway to cover the west coast.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman says that there are two vessels, but it is their location and what they are actually doing that is the problem.

Mr Reid: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is not the number of vessels that is the problem but the location. There is no vessel based in Stornoway to cover the west coast, and I hope that the Government will take that on board.

I also note that funding for the emergency towing vessels is only guaranteed until the end of the current spending review period in 2015, which is not far off, so I hope that the funding will be guaranteed on a permanent basis. The seas around the west coast and islands provide the basis for much of the local economic activity. Preserving lives and the environment is vital, as is reassuring seafarers that rescue will come quickly if they get into difficulties. Our coastguards, both professional and volunteer, and the professional rescue services and volunteer lifeboat crews do a tremendous job. They deserve to be backed up by a properly resourced system of co-ordination and emergency vessels. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some assurances on the issues that I have raised today.

2.2 pm

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): I apologise to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) for missing the start of the debate. Unfortunately, I had an unbreakable commitment, but I have read the excellent report and congratulate the Committee on its follow-up. I have three issues to raise. First, it remains a matter of profound regret in my constituency that the Brixham maritime rescue co-ordination centre will close. I pay tribute to the staff at the centre and to the dignified way in which they are assisting in the handover period. Listening to the accounts of staff, I hope that the Minister will pay particular attention to ensuring that we retain their valuable skills and support those who are able to continue within the service, so that we do not lose their local knowledge. I take the point, however, that the efforts that are being made to transfer some of that local knowledge into detailed databases will be helpful.

Secondly, much local knowledge is vested in the volunteer coastguards. Will the Minister look at a particular area in my constituency around Hope Cove? We have a Hope Cove rescue boat and a cliff rescue team, which is

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staffed by volunteer coastguards. Unfortunately, there has been an attitude of extreme intransigence on the part of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in the matter of dual manning. I represent a rural constituency and we are fortunate to have volunteers who are prepared to undertake dual manning. There has never been an issue over that. Unfortunately, volunteers are being pressured into a situation where they have to choose between one or other of the operations, and there simply is not the availability of staff in the area reliably to man both as completely separate teams.

Ian Pedrick, who heads up a team, is the third generation in this community that has manned the Hope Cove lifeboat. If pressed, the entire team would opt to stay with the Hope Cove rescue boat because there is such a long tradition within our community and it is such a highly valued resource. Will the Minister look at the matter and try to break the deadlock, so that we can continue an arrangement that has served our community well over generations?

The third issue is emergency towing vehicles. There are concerns in my constituency that we may find that there are no vessels capable of carrying out the duties of ETVs closer than Brest or Cherbourg. Evidence for that is supplied by the MCA head of pollution control. Both vessels are many hours away. They are under the control of the French Government and might be available if the French are not using them. It should be noted that the French are particularly unhappy about the UK’s unilateral withdrawal of ETV cover, as it has left their coastline also relatively unprotected. I do not need to spell out to the Minister the disastrous consequences if we had a spillage in the channel, which is a busy shipping area. The impact would be felt not only by our valued fishing industry but by our tourism industry. Will the Minister tell us exactly what facilities would be available on a commercial basis, and what assessment has been made of their reliability to provide the reassurance that my constituents seek should there be a shipping disaster in the future? Let me close now by paying tribute to our local coastguards for everything they do on our behalf.

2.7 pm

Mr Gordon Marsden (Blackpool South) (Lab): It is a great pleasure and privilege, Mr Rosindell, to serve under your chairmanship and to speak for the first time as the Front-Bench spokesman with responsibility for this area. Like others, I pay tribute to the work of the coastguards. Both the regulars and the volunteers do a fantastic job, as do the other sea rescue agencies that they work with.

I am conscious of the fact that this area is both complex and difficult and one to which I am new. Having served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in a range of Government Departments and sat on two Select Committees, I know that there are no easy answers, either political or administrative, in such issues. However, the business of Government can be improved by three things: evidence-driven policy, wide consultation with stakeholders and using Select Committees as a critical spur to challenge too many paper or computer-driven scenarios.

Evidence-driven policy has often been lacking, as the Select Committee discovered after much prodding and probing over the past two years. The deficiencies in the

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process are clear. As the Select Committee pointed out, there was no thorough public consultation and the original proposals were deeply flawed. To their credit, the Government responded to those points, but it is concerning none the less that, even at this stage, the Select Committee, two years on from the original proposal, still has some specific concerns about the direction of responsibility.

There are big issues around greater local interoperability and they seem to have been ignored or ducked. In many cases, the Government seem to have put the cart before the horse, closing MRCCs before the maritime operations centre is fully operative, and there are widespread woes, as we have already heard this afternoon, that local knowledge is being spurned and not transferred.

We know that the day-today co-operation between MOC and the centres is soon to be replaced by the coastguard operation centres. The Government say that coastguard officers will be trained more broadly and extensively, making them more flexible. We have already heard about how local knowledge can be shared between local coastguards. However, I have a question, which echoes what the Chair of the Transport Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), said—how can local knowledge be shared when so little time has been allowed for handover between the closing of MRCCs and the neighbouring centres? Also, how will staff in the MOC gain this information for all their areas? I understand that on one occasion the Department for Transport spokesperson said that they could use social media, but the Minister must be aware that there are very strict conventions within the maritime service about how social media are used, so perhaps he would like to examine that issue or comment on it.

The Government have also said that the MOC will oversee a range of services, including search and rescue, but do more resources need to be put aside for it also to manage the introduction of a newly privatised search and rescue service and to have the capacity to adapt to the longer term search and rescue solution? I ask the Minister, specifically, what confidence he has that Dover, as a back-up to the Fareham-based MOC, will be far enough away from Fareham to provide an effective back-up, so that a serious event could not result in both centres being incapacitated at the same time?

At the close of the second consultation, at the end of November 2011, the then Minister—the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning)—admitted that concerns had already been expressed about having both an unmanned centre and back-up in the south, when they should perhaps be more geographically separated.

Of course, there are also wider issues of collaboration here. If the Government boast that this change is a thorough overhaul of the service, why has there been no broader assessment at any stage of the relationship between the coastguard and the MOC, and the other traditional rescue services—the beach patrols and lifeguards that local councils run, the fire and rescue services, and crucially the relationship with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which is not only about central administration but local volunteers?

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Recently, I have put a couple of written questions to the Minister on that issue. I will just quote from the reply to one of them:

“The RNLI, like coastguard rescue teams, independent lifeboats, rescue helicopters and other rescue facilities, are not affected by these changes.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 661W.]

I submit that if anyone ever wanted to see an example of silo mentality in a Department, there it is. I invite the Minister to comment on why I received that written response.

Mr MacNeil: Will the hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to state whether he believes an emergency towing vessel should be based in Stornoway? Indeed, will he commit to such a vessel being based in Stornoway in the future?

Mr Marsden: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He and his colleague, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), have already raised that issue and I will return to it later in my speech.

How do the Government expect fire and rescue services in particular to develop proposals for an at-sea presence without direct central funding, at a time when local budgets are more stretched than ever? I know that there is, of course, a piecemeal arrangement along the south coast, but so far as I am aware that does not extend elsewhere.

In response to the Select Committee, the Minister has produced positive scenarios about the interaction of MOC staff and MRCC staff, but the Committee has rightly pressed the Government on major incident scenarios. If we look at the Government response, we see that page 7 contains a list of actions that superficially seem impressive. I came to this brief from looking at further education funding. In that sector too, there are wonderful diagrams about the process of money and the process of communication, and I am sure that if the Minister got his officials to produce a complicated diagram of the various steps that are listed on page 7 it would be even more impressive. But the crucial question is how long it would take the complex chain of command detailed on page 7 to operate and respond. That will be the determination of how effective the MOC is, and raising that issue underlines the continued concerns and disquiet that members of the Committee and other hon. Members have expressed today about emergency vessels.

I turn now to the issue of staffing, because that has already been talked about in considerable detail. The demographic profile of coastguards is highly skewed towards older employees. The Minister’s own figures, from the Government response to the Committee, show that, for example, in Falmouth 14 of the 33 coastguards are over the age of 50 and in Humber 16 of the 27 coastguards are over 50. So those valued employees will probably be leaving the service during the next five to 10 years and taking their experience with them, at the same time as there is major upheaval in coastguard operations. In addition, there is currently a growing loss of valuable expertise in the service. For example, only one of the London coastguards has more than 20 years of experience. Therefore, the emerging picture is that no replacement generation of coastguards is coming through with the

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extensive service that is needed both to replace those who will soon leave and to oversee the introduction of the new system.

In 2011, the Government proposals estimated a total reduction in staffing numbers from 596 to 370, with coastguard numbers falling from 491 to 248. Therefore, there will be an increasing reliance on volunteers, with the number required rising from 80 to 105. We have already heard today about some of the problems with volunteers, so could the Minister give more up-to-date figures on the assessment of job losses as a result of this reorganisation?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): I think that the hon. Gentleman is really confused at this point. There are no volunteers being used in the co-ordination centres, and the centres are what those figures were referring to. So he might just want to gently correct the record on that point.

Mr Marsden: I will correct the record as and when I have examined the details of what the Minister has said, and if it needs to be corrected.

Does the Minister accept, therefore, that frequent reports of low morale in the service are exacerbated by the Government’s inability to provide a clear picture of coastguards’ future? It seems to me that the closures at Forth and Clyde, what has been said in that area and the admirable work of my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) on the numbers involved have produced some really rather concerning statistics. The Public and Commercial Services Union has said that not only are 15% of all operational coastguard posts vacant but of the 416 posts that are filled 24% of them are filled by officers on fixed-term appointments; I gather that those are Maritime and Coastguard Agency statistics from 2012. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside, the Chair of the Select Committee, has already given the details showing the disillusionment and resignation among volunteer coastguards.

The Government have failed to offer a clear or finite timetable to coastguards, and they have explained that that was due to the assessment of ongoing operations and the success of transition. How that assessment would be made has never been made very clear. We have heard about the problems at Yarmouth, with it being designated as a daylight-only centre, and we have also heard about the changes in the closing dates for Solent, Portland and Brixham. These problems and changes breed confusion and can also lower morale. So can the Minister say what the current timetable is for the remaining closures at Liverpool, Swansea and Thames in 2014-15, and can he also say if that timetable is likely to change given that the original timetable for those closures was produced in 2011?

As I say, the Select Committee’s report talks quite a lot about local knowledge, but of course what has been very apparent in this whole process—my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Committee, has already referred to this—is the continuing concern, which has been expressed again today by hon. Members, both about those centres that have closed and those that are expected to close.

I will just touch on two or three of those centres. The closure of the Yarmouth centre is not just an example of local jobs and a proud tradition being lost; there are also some very specific local issues along that coastline.

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I know that they have been considerably aired in the local media, including the transfer of oil from one tanker to another along the coast from Lowestoft and Southwold. There have been issues about co-ordination, which have been exacerbated by the removal of the Yarmouth centre. There has been a particular incident at Caister in the recent past and the Caister lifeboat centre has expressed its concerns. My colleague in the European Parliament, Richard Howitt, said that the decision on Yarmouth could lead to a disaster.

Dr Coffey rose—

Mr Marsden: I am just about to come on to what the hon. Lady said earlier. She told us that several people had transferred from Yarmouth to Humber, but of course what she did not tell us was how many people had not done so.

Dr Coffey: The hon. Gentleman just needs to be careful about that case, because I think it is still being investigated. I appreciate that Mr Howitt said what he did, but the risk is that when the full details come out he will understand that the process happened exactly as it should have done.

Mr Marsden: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I am not making any particular comment on what the final incident report might be in that respect; I am merely reporting to her, as I am sure she is already aware, the concerns that were expressed by the Caister lifeboat crew.

There are also issues regarding the Clyde and Forth closures, which have been already referred to, including the fact that those services are now being operated out of Belfast. In my own neck of the woods, in Blackpool, we are concerned about the closure of the Liverpool centre. There is significant concern about all its work being done out of Holyhead. Mr Ken Harcombe, from the National Coastwatch Institution’s Rossall point observatory, just outside my constituency, said:

“Our concern would be if there was any delay dealing with someone 300 miles away, that could cost lives.”

We are keen to maintain some local community with Liverpool.

Blackpool attracts some 10 million visitors a year. We have a lot of problems with sea tragedies and, if such problems are exacerbated, that will make things far worse, not just in Blackpool, but along the whole coast. That is why the coroner for the area has expressed her concerns in the past and why the Blackpool annual patrol report for 2011 stated:

“The impending closure of Liverpool Coastguard Rescue Co-ordination Centre, is anticipated to have a significant effect on beach/sea safety at Blackpool.”

Before I leave local issues, my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Martin Caton), who is unable to be with us today, tells me that in Swansea there remains considerable concern about the decision to close the centre there. There was a huge cross-party campaign against the closure. Questions still remain about why Milford Haven was chosen as the site, as opposed to Swansea.

We have heard about the situation regarding emergency towing vehicles in Scotland. What lessons have the Government learned from the experiences there about the need to maintain a Government-backed ETV in the

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interests of ensuring safety and protection from maritime pollution? I am not in a position to say what the extent of that provision should be, but surely in this situation we should consider those things. What is the state of the procurement process, to find emergency towing vehicles support in Scottish waters? What are the long-term plans to ensure the stable, reliable provision of ETV support in the rest of the UK’s waters?

The Government did not explain, in their response to the Select Committee’s critical question, how the ETV in the northern isles would effectively serve the west coast. We have heard concerns about that this afternoon.

Mr Reid: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is highlighting these concerns. He speaks as the Labour party spokesperson, so perhaps he will tell us whether the Labour party would, if it won the next election, propose to have an ETV on the west coast?

Mr Marsden: That is a nice try, but the hon. Gentleman knows that we cannot make commitments to future funding until we have seen the books, after the next election. He also knows that the first step in making decisions in this area is to do a proper analysis, which the Government have failed to do.

When the Government responded, initially—

Mr MacNeil: Will the hon. Gentleman explain the difference between his position and the Government’s? He seems to be talking about investigations tomorrow. There is no firm commitment whatever to looking into the real, pressing need, as identified in the Select Committee report. It is fluff we are hearing from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr Marsden: I regret to say that the hon. Gentleman would do better to stick up for his constituents, rather than play party political games. He knows perfectly well that the real issue is whether there will be support in the short term, and that is an issue for the UK Government, so perhaps he will turn his attention to that in future, rather than play political games.

Mr MacNeil: What is the difference?

Mr Marsden: I am not taking another intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

There was an airy response from the Department in October 2010, when it announced why the process would proceed as set out. It said:

“ship salvage should be a commercial matter between a ship’s operator and a salvor.”

In my view, that shows that the Government do not get it. What about the pollution issues, in respect of which ETVs have been proposed as a solution?

We were told in the original assessment that the removal of a commitment to ETVs would save £32.5 million over the spending review period, but, for example, we heard the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) mention her concerns about the length of time it might take for an ETV from the south coast to come and deal with an incident in her area. I have already talked about the problems and deep concerns on the east coast about tanker-to-tanker oil transfers. If a major pollution incident were to take place, how much of that alleged £32.5 million

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saving would be swallowed up in cleaning costs? This decision is based on an assumption that the private sector would pick up the tab. However, outside Scotland, where, I gather, specific commitments have been made recently, there is no evidence that it will do so. The Transport Committee was right to label this, in June 2011, as potentially a dangerous situation.

The Government’s response to this issue over the past two years has been a curious mix of detailed response to the Select Committee’s excellent report and prodding, and dangerous complacency. It is quite clear that, throughout the process, emotional intelligence and a sense of the need for co-operation from the work force has been severely lacking.

The end of the Department’s most recent response to the Committee’s report slipped back into a Maoist view of permanent revolution, which will do little to assuage the concerns of coastguards and coastal communities, about services that liaise with the general public. The Department dismissed the comments about the future, saying, “You can’t make decisions for a generation.” Of course, no Government can guarantee no further change, but it is important to respond in a considered, thoughtful way to a Select Committee report, rather than arrogantly.

Generations are normally considered as periods of 30 years. Earlier this year, I attended a moving unveiling ceremony in Blackpool on the 30th anniversary of three police officers losing their lives in a sea incident. That brought home to me the need for all emergency coastal services, whether voluntary or statutory, to co-operate and collaborate. That is what we should be looking for out of this process—as well as answers to the detailed questions that the Transport Committee has still to receive.

2.27 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): I welcome the report and this debate, and the opportunity to update the House on some of the many developments in the modernisation of the coastguard, in the approach to emergency towing vessels and in the way fires at sea are now handled.

Let me start, as the Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), rightly did—and as almost every other hon. Member who contributed to the debate did—by praising the coastguard on its excellent work, including an outstanding summer of hard work that has seen our shores remain so safe.

The Government welcome the interest of, and the close scrutiny and challenge from, the Transport Committee over the past three years. The Committee Chair knows that we have not agreed with all the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations, yet there are a number of legitimate, important matters to discuss. In my response, I hope to tackle the four or five major points on which she challenged the Government.

I state at the outset—I have said this to the Scottish Affairs Committee and, twice, to the Transport Committee in respect of maritime matters—and reassure hon. Members that the Government will do nothing to endanger safety and they are not complacent.

The Transport Committee’s primary area of interest is the modernisation of the coastguard, which is of great interest to a number of hon. Members, not least because, as an island nation, more than 200 parliamentary

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constituencies have a coastline. There are more than 200 million individual visits to the coast each year and no one in the country is more than 72 miles from the sea. Even many hon. Members with inland constituencies have rightly shown an interest in this matter.

Before I address a number of the concerns raised by hon. Members today, it is important to put the proposals for change back into context and to explain why they were introduced in December 2010. At times, people have confused what the report is about; it is about the co-ordination of maritime search and rescue, not about the front line.

The proposals do not affect front-line services operated by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and independent lifeboats, nor do they affect the ability of search and rescue helicopters to perform their task, for which, of course, there is now greater investment. The proposals also do not affect mud and cliff rescue services provided by volunteers and the coastguard rescue service. I have reiterated this before, but there is no impact on safety or on those services.

Mr Marsden: I thank the Minister for clarifying, but does he not accept that there is a difference between the specific effects of the proposals? He is absolutely right to say that what is happening in the coastguard does not formally affect the RNLI or the various other services he mentions, but surely he would accept that, for good reasons or otherwise, when the area of coverage is widened, as under the proposals, there are implications for how the service is co-ordinated. The Department should be considering better ways—there are always better ways—of co-ordinating with the other services.

Stephen Hammond: As I have contested both before the Select Committee and in other debates, the impact will be that the co-ordination of the affected services will improve. The services will be more resilient and safety will increase. That is key, and we must ensure that we do not lose sight of it at the outset of this debate.

Historically, in the 1970s we had a coastguard co-ordination system fit for the 1970s. In 2010, however, that co-ordination system had not moved on. The system was still right for the 1970s, but it was certainly not appropriate for the 21st century. The fact that we had done so well was due to the excellent work of the superb men and women in the service.

The case for change was that it had become clear that the technical and physical infrastructure in place in 2010 had not kept pace with the maritime operating environment. The service was geared up for its role of dealing with localised, and only localised, maritime search and rescue, and to many extents it did that well. But since the last major reconfiguration of the coastguard in the late 1970s, when it was recognised that there was no longer a need to maintain a visual watch, the demands on officers operating the system, as it was pre-December 2010, had grown significantly.

Technology has clearly moved forward. As many hon. Members know, the introduction of the global distress and safety system in the 1990s changed how coastguards receive distress messages. The demise of the old coast radio stations led to coastguards taking on the role of broadcasting regular navigation warnings and maritime safety information. Coastguards were given new responsibilities for broadcasting information

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to the fishing community on submarine movements and military firing exercises. More recently, the world has acquired the ability to track ship movements and plot them in real time on electronic charts using the automatic identification system. All that has added to the marine picture available to coastguards.

The importance of maritime surveillance has increased the relevance of situational or maritime domain awareness, as it is known. That has added to the need for differing skills and growing responsibilities, so in 2010 we faced a significant disparity of work load among maritime rescue co-ordination centres. At the height of a busy summer season, some centres could find themselves dealing with multiple incidents and having to drop coastguard duties and broadcasts to focus, rightly, on life-or-death rescue situations.

Current technology has now allowed some pairing of resources between neighbouring centres to co-ordinate responses, but there is little capacity to provide support beyond that. Prior to 2010, if both centres in a pair found themselves busy, routine lower-priority work would be dropped so that, quite rightly, the immediate impact on safety was addressed. None the less, there was a significant gap in resilience. The case for a national, joined up approach that allows work to be better managed and distributed and exposes coastguards to the full range of work, thereby keeping their skills relevant and finely tuned, seemed clear in 2010.

Let us not be under any illusion: there was clear consensus across the House, which was highlighted during some of the consultation exercises, on the need to do something about coastguard pay, particularly at lower levels. Creating a national network, with the new national maritime operations centre at its heart, has put in place improved safety systems with fewer coastguards in fewer locations, but, importantly, it is helping to relocate the money to ensure that we have properly improved pay to reflect the increased responsibilities placed on coastguards in the new centres across the country. That is why it is right to propose the changes.

In her opening remarks, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside rightly said that there were concerns about the initial plans, and it is fair, as she rightly acknowledged, that the Government accepted those concerns and modified the plans. Following the Transport Committee’s report, changes were made and a second set of proposals were announced in July 2011. That set of proposals retained more centres, all operating on 24 hours and all with more coastguard operators.

Throughout the consultation process, there were considerable concerns about the loss of local knowledge, and several hon. Members have raised that point today. Concerns about the perceived loss of local knowledge are understandable. Over a number of years, the number of co-ordination centres has reduced from nearly 30, so the lack of local knowledge has been highlighted at every stage of the process.

As the chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and I explained to the Transport Committee, in the transitional phase, as the national network is being put in place, the MCA is ensuring that there is time for increasing coastguard familiarisation with their new areas. All coastguards in the new areas are being tested on their understanding of local rescue facilities, incident hotspots and communication systems. Equally, all coastguards will have access to, and will share, a common

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national system. We are also working with the Ordnance Survey on developing a database of vernacular place names, which will allow multiple names to be applied to any coastal feature or place, factoring in local as well as Gaelic and Welsh names.

Mr Marsden: I am pleased to hear what the Minister has said about the testing process, but is he in a position to elaborate slightly? How, specifically, will that work? If he is not in a position to elaborate, will he write to members of the Committee on that point?

Stephen Hammond: I do not need to write to members of the Select Committee about that because Sir Alan Massey, the chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and I set out in some detail how those transitional arrangements will work. We set out the number of visits that each coastguard is expected to undertake and the time period for them to do so.

If the hon. Gentleman has the chance, I hope he will look at the evidence session, which I hope will reassure him. [Interruption.] If he is not happy with that, I will happily respond further, but I think he will find that our evidence sets out the arrangements.

Mrs Ellman: Will the Minister give us an absolute assurance that he is satisfied that there is an official programme to ensure that coastguards increase their familiarity with new areas? The issue arising in the evidence taken by the Select Committee is that coastguards are working on that in their spare time, rather than as an official part of business.

Stephen Hammond: I am aware that the Select Committee took some such evidence, but, equally, the chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency gave his assurance that time was being made available for coastguards to do that, so it need not be done in anyone’s spare time. He also said that local knowledge would be in place up to two months before any coastguard station closing.

We also discussed local knowledge in some depth when I was before the Scottish Affairs Committee, and I remember that one Committee member said—my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) may also remember, if it was not his good self—that there were three places, all within a mile of each other, known by the same name, so that even the Member with his local knowledge could not be certain whether he directed people to the right place the first time.

Local knowledge is important—retaining it and having knowledge transfer—as is the new vernacular system. We must recognise, however, that at every stage local knowledge is only one part of what should be in place. With the new modern systems, it is incredibly important that we rely not only on local knowledge, but on modern mapping systems and vernacular place-name capture, which will undoubtedly be an improvement.

In November 2011, in response to the second debate, another set of decisions was announced, together with the timetable for the closures and for the transition to the national network. Since then, the MCA has managed the closures of Forth, Clyde and Great Yarmouth, the centres earmarked for closure ahead of establishing the new national Maritime Operations Centre—due to the

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building leasing arrangements for Clyde and Great Yarmouth, and to reflect the robustness of the existing technical infrastructure between Forth and the centre at Aberdeen.

Before each centre closed, the neighbouring centres increased familiarity with the new patch. Some officers transferred from the closing centres, and experts with local intelligence briefed officers in the receiving centres—a system known as pairing—so that local information was retained. A few weeks ahead of each closure, coastguards at the receiving centres took on full responsibility, while the closing centres went into shadow running mode. That gave everyone confidence that the systems would be and were working and that the receiving officers could manage the larger areas competently. I hope that the House will join me in paying tribute to the professionalism of the coastguard officers involved in managing that process over the past 12 months, which has been a credit to those involved. The experience reaffirmed our belief that other closures can and will be managed safely and within the time set out, although we are not complacent.

To pick up some of the points made in the debate, I hope that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside heard my comments about local knowledge and, in particular, developments with Ordnance Survey. She also asked what MOC staff would be doing when not managing major incidents. They will of course be providing routine operational cover for areas of the UK coastline, so that there is even stronger and better resilience in coverage. That will include vessel traffic monitoring, safety information and maintaining an updated national risk picture.

There was some concern that coastguards had expressed the view that, overall, they would have to work longer hours. The new contract that has been agreed with the Public and Commercial Services Union increases the number of days, but reduces the number of nights. Therefore, staff will have more whole weekends off than under the current arrangements, while leave for existing staff remains as it has always been. I hope that the hon. Lady can accept my reassurance and see that we have taken on coastguards concerns.

We and the MCA in particular have made great progress in establishing the new national arrangements for infrastructure and technology. The new national MOC near Fareham is being equipped with the latest operational kit; it will be ready for training to start in January and for full operational running by next September. Acceptance checking of the refreshed emergency response systems is progressing well, and that will shortly allow the MCA to move into an extended period of operational testing.

A number of Members who have contributed today made the point, rightly, about the slower progress in settling the new package of terms and conditions for roles. That reflects the complications of agreeing a new package for coastguards, given the increased responsibilities, the commitment under the civil service reform plan to modernise the employment offer in the public sector and the consequent need for agreement. Without agreed terms and conditions, it would not be possible to start recruitment for the new roles and responsibilities.

The good news is that the MCA has agreed a new set of terms and conditions with the Treasury and a firm offer is on the table, which has the support of the PCS’s

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elected representatives in the MCA. I hope that the offer will be accepted. To be clear, the new jobs will have significantly increased responsibilities, which we have recognised with a significantly enhanced pay and grading structure. For example, the lowest entry level for coastguard officers is now one civil service grade higher, which means being paid 19% more than today. As I have said, there will be some revision of working patterns in the package, but the shift systems will match demand much better, according to the seasons and the time of day. Coastguards in all operational centres will therefore have a reduced number of night duties, with more full weekends off during a year. The offer also includes a commitment to at least 60 hours of continuous professional development each year.

Recruitment for the new roles will start in November, and that process has also been agreed with the PCS. I hope and expect that many existing coastguard officers will now opt to stay within the service and to apply for the new roles as they become available. Others may wish to leave, and we will support them if they wish to consider taking voluntary redundancy. In the interim, the coastguard service has been committed not to leave vacancies unfilled until the roles were agreed—there has been a continuing operation to recruit new officers. The MCA has now successfully recruited 59 new coastguards, providing some resilience. There was particular concern about the low number of shifts in places such as Belfast, but we have seen success in recruiting there, as well as in Falmouth, Solent and elsewhere. I am pleased that the recruitment process has continued and is continuing; a point was made about the recruitment of some new officers on fixed-term appointments, but, to be clear, such recruitment was explicitly agreed with the unions first, to avoid any perception of unfair competition for future jobs.

Mr Marsden: Notwithstanding the progress that the Minister has described in particular areas, which I will reflect on, does he accept that there is a systemic issue about the age profile and the number of people likely to retire in the next five to 10 years? The problem is not unique to the MCA, but will need further thought and addressing by it.

Stephen Hammond: The MCA has addressed that explicitly in the document. The ability to recruit new officers, particularly at the lower end, suffered because of the lack of a career path and opportunities. I hope the hon. Gentleman heard me say that we have agreed a new grading system with enhanced responsibilities and a clear career path, and that is reflected in a rise in civil service grading. I hope that that will make this a much more attractive and rewarding career to many people. I also hope that now that the new roles have been settled and there is an ongoing vacancy recruitment process, we will shortly be able to report a considerable reduction in the number of shifts below assessed risk level.

I turn to the implementation timetable, which we set out in November 2011. We now accept that some of it is no longer achievable because of the need to ensure a safe transition to the national system. We have made small but necessary and sensible adjustments to the planned closure dates. They have been communicated to staff and to search and rescue partners, and I have written to all hon. Members. The stations at Solent and

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Portland will close in September 2014 after the busy summer season, when the new NMO centre will be staffed and operational. The centre at Brixham will close in November 2014, followed by Liverpool in January 2015 and Swansea in March 2015. The final centre to close will be the Thames centre at Walton-on-the-Naze in June 2015. The full technical infrastructure for the new national, fully resilient system will be in place by the end of 2015.

Understandably, that final confirmation will disappoint several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). Like her, I praise the coastguards at Brixham, but the new system will ensure safety round her shores. She raised a particular issue regarding Hope Cove and I understand that the MCA is working with the coastguards there to resolve that. I will ensure that my officials speak to the team at Hope Cove, and I will respond in writing to my hon. Friend to address her concern.

Mr Reid: I was pleased that the Minister announced the 59 extra staff. Does he have the figures to show how staffing at Belfast and Stornoway compares with what their establishment should be? If he does not have those figures, will he write to me?

Stephen Hammond: If the hon. Gentleman gives me a minute, I may be able to supply those figures. I can tell him what the current vacancy level is, but I will ensure that my officials give him the figures he asks for.

I turn to a couple of other points that the hon. Member for Blackpool South raised. He spoke about the volunteer arrangements and I intervened to make the point that they refer to volunteers on the front line and not to the co-ordination centres. I do not believe those arrangements need to change because they are excellent. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the other voluntary coastguard systems provide a magnificent service, and to suggest that we are trying to alter that in any way would cause much disquiet. I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that they provide an excellent service.

The hon. Gentleman asked about handing over following the closure of MRCCs and I made a statement on that a moment ago. I reiterate that that has been done in a staged way with shadowing and a gradual handover. I hope he will be reassured that it was not a case of one station closing one day, and a new one opening the following morning. Far from it, there have been traditional pairing operations and the handovers have been based on those pairing operations. Indeed, there was significant time in-between to ensure that all the arrangements were in place.

I turn briefly to emergency towing vessels in Scotland, to which the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), who is no longer in his place, referred. The Government have undertaken the necessary analysis and assessment. We all accept that shipping is not risk-free, but the world has moved on considerably since the Government funded tugs. There have been improvements in technology, navigation and safety systems, with the advent of new ship routeing and reporting.

We continue to take the view that it is for the shipping industry to manage and to mitigate the risks that its activities present to the maritime environment and to

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make full use of the established arrangements for the provision of commercial towage and salvage. Those commercial arrangements are working well in some areas where the Government used to provide funded tugs, particularly in the south-west approaches and the Dover strait. Indeed, those commercial arrangements have now been the norm for almost two years, and have worked well.

The Government accept that there was an issue with the availability of commercial tugs in the waters off Scotland, which proved to be more problematic, so we gave a commitment to fund a single emergency tug based in Orkney. However, due to the excellent working across Government and with the oil and gas industry, we have been able to put in place arrangements that permit a vessel that is normally engaged in commercial operations to be released from its contracted duty to perform emergency towage in the waters off northern Scotland. That has been available at no extra cost. The Secretary of State led those discussions and the discussions on the future of emergency towing vehicles in Scotland. The Scottish Government were also involved. A solution has been found for the next two years with a vessel commercially funded by the offshore industry. That is welcome and provides the necessary resilience for the coast there.

The hon. Member for Blackpool South asked about the complement in Belfast. Shetland is six down but we are in the process of recruiting three officers, so it is only three below complement. Stornoway had been two officers down, but the recruitment process has resulted in two officers about to join, so it will be at full complement.

Dr Wollaston: Will the Minister write to me to reassure my constituents about the availability of commercial ETVs? We do not have an offshore oil industry that could provide such support.

Stephen Hammond: I will write to my hon. Friend to point out what arrangements are in place and why they have worked so well for the past two years. I am sure that if she wishes to raise other issues, she will, and I will be happy to respond.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate this afternoon. It has enabled me to set out our position and, hopefully, to allay some fears of hon. Members about the progress of recruitment, the resilience of the transition process and the confirmation of the final dates of closure of a number of the MRCCs. I am also pleased that progress to get the national centre at Fareham ready on time is going well, and I think that a more cost-effective, safer arrangement for UK coastal co-ordination has been secured.

2.59 pm

Mrs Ellman: I thank the Minister for his remarks; his answers bring clarity to some important issues. He began by saying that safety would not be affected, but that, indeed, remains the challenge.

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Food Contamination

[Mrs Sandra Osborne in the Chair]

[Relevant documents: Eighth report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Contamination of Beef Products, HC 946, and the Government Response, HC 1085, and Fifth Report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee,Food Contamination, HC 141, and the Government Response, HC 707.]

3 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mrs Osborne. Together with colleagues from the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I am delighted to have secured the debate. I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to his new position and congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) for retaining his as shadow Minister.

The Minister is new, but we look forward to hearing his remarks in summing up the debate. I take this opportunity to thank him, in his individual capacity, for the contribution he made and excellent work he did on the Select Committee. I remind the Chamber—and, perhaps, the Minister—that he contributed to and supported the conclusions of both the reports and the Government responses, which we received just as he was vacating his position. I hope that he will keep some of his enthusiasm and vigour in summing up today.

I would like to talk briefly about the history—a previous Committee report is also of interest. The United Kingdom decided to impose a moratorium on desinewed meat production in this country, which had huge implications—not only for my constituency, but for parts of Northern Ireland. Newby Foods was told that it could no longer produce desinewed meat, which led to a loss of 30 jobs near Thirsk.

Since we conducted our report and reviewed the UK Government moratorium, which was imposed as a short-term measure at the will of the European Commission in Brussels, the Government have clarified desinewed meat from poultry and pork as being from non-ruminants, so that that process may continue. However, will the Minister continue to make the case to the European Union for desinewed meat production from lamb and beef to be allowed to continue, as well as from pork and poultry?

That information is relevant to the debate, because we concluded, in, I believe, March 2012—this was based on an assertion in evidence from a predecessor of the Minister; it was perhaps two farming Ministers ago—that ceasing production of desinewed meat could lead to mislabelling and the contamination and adulteration of meat, with cheaper cuts of meat substituted for the meat that is on the label.

3.4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.15 pm

On resuming

Miss McIntosh: Perhaps I could set the scene in terms of the food industry. As of last year, there were more than 490,000 food businesses in England. In 2011-12,

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spending to protect consumers from food incidents was £241 million, 75% of which was spent by local authorities to enforce food law.

One issue the Committee identified was that the Food Standards Agency reports to three key Departments with responsibility for aspects of food policy. Furthermore, there has been a marked fall since 2009-12 in the number of local authority food samples tested. In addition, there are 12 different national and European databases on food intelligence.

Let me record a little of the history. In November 2012, there was a routine meeting between the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the UK’s FSA. At that meeting, the Irish FSA mentioned that it was developing a new methodology for checking the composition of meat products. The first question the Committee asked—we are asking it again today—was why it took two months for our own FSA to authorise and conduct any testing.

Tests then found that there had been contamination; it was small in the UK, but it was widespread in the EU. In the UK, horse and pig DNA were found in a variety of beef products, including samples of Findus lasagne, which contained more than 60% horsemeat; Aldi lasagne and spaghetti bolognese, which contained between 30% and 100% horsemeat; and beef products certified as halal and supplied to prisons in England and Wales that contained pork DNA.

Those findings emerged only after extensive testing of beef products across the EU and by local authorities and industry in the UK. The EU tests revealed that 4.66% of products contained more than 1% horse DNA. The UK incidence of contamination in products tested was less than 1%. Although the contamination was small, and the principle was that this was a labelling and a fraud issue, there could so easily have been a food safety scare and a food safety scandal.

Complacency is not the best word to use, but we have seen no sense of urgency among the Government, which is why we welcome my hon. Friend’s appointment as Minister. The Secretary of State or another Minister told us in evidence that the perpetrators of this crime—if it was a crime, and everyone generally understands it is a crime—would face the full force of the law. What arrests have therefore been made? What is the role of Europol and, possibly, Interpol? What charges and prosecutions have been brought by the City of London police to draw a line under this issue?

If we are to boost consumer confidence, which I think we all want to do, we must show there is no further contamination and no prospect of further contamination. We therefore need to know at what stage the contamination and adulteration entered the food supply chain. We talk a lot in the two reports about controls in the food chain, to protect consumers from contaminated and potentially unsafe food, which did not work in the case in question.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the matter, as something following on from the BSE crisis, is that every 10 years we have either a food scare or a food crisis. In the early 1990s, it was BSE; in 2001, it was foot and mouth disease; and in 2012—we know that it started in 2011—it was the scandal to do with horsemeat contamination and pork DNA being found in halal meat. That was completely unacceptable.

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One worry is identifying the supply chain, and traceability, and we drew some clear conclusions from the evidence. The chief executive of the FSA told us the contamination and adulteration could have been going on for almost a year, from March 2012, when desinewed meat production in this country was banned—there was also a so-called ban in the EU, although we believe it was being produced in the EU.

We concluded that the system for food traceability, including the requirement that at every stage in the supply chain operators must keep records of the source and destination of each product, has been breached; that retailers and meat processors should have been more vigilant about the risk of deliberate adulteration; and that trust is not a sufficient guarantee in a system where meat is traded many times before reaching its final destination. We have also noted our concern about the length of supply chains for processed and frozen beef products. We welcome the efforts of some retailers to shorten those whenever possible.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I commend the hon. Lady for securing the debate. Perhaps I can bring together two strands of her thinking. There will be public discontent if only a relatively few small players are investigated and prosecuted and become scapegoats for the industry. If larger players—whether they are meat processors, retailers or others—can be proved not to have used due diligence, or to have been negligent, ignorant or downright culpable, the size of the operation or its importance to the European market should not preclude investigation, including by Governments working together, if necessary.

Miss McIntosh: I welcome that intervention. The hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), led a line of questioning in that regard, and we met a brick wall. I agree that the action taken should not be symbolic, against small retailers. We must go through the supply chain. When a major supermarket takes a supply chain on trust year after year, without inspecting identities and its integrity, there is definitely something wrong. As to traceability and the so-called labelling issue, I confess to being disappointed with the Government response. We have identified a problem of traceability and labelling, and I urge the Minister to go a bit further, so that we have concrete suggestions.

I have mentioned the number of relevant businesses and the food industry’s importance to the economy. We must accept, with respect to testing, the need for a risk-based assessment, but when we are told that there is a risk in a particular country we need, for goodness’ sake, to wake up, liven up and respond, because of the potential for a problem in this country.

The people we need to go out and do testing—the first in line—are food analysts. We learned in evidence that most of those are in the Association of Public Analysts. I want to dwell on that point for a moment. We found out that insufficient testing has been done by local authorities since 2009. We need to accept that, although testing must be risk-based, there should be some random testing to ensure that nothing slips through the net.

We also identified an acute potential shortage of public analysts. I want to take issue with the Government response to our second report at point 13:

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“Officials from both FSA and Defra meet regularly with representatives from the Association of Public Analysts and local authorities to ensure sufficient laboratory capacity exists and suitable methods are in place”.

I want to quiz the Minister on that. The Association of Public Analysts has meetings with FSA officials twice a year. That is not “regularly”—it is only every six months. One meeting was attended by a DEFRA official, the implication being that the other was not, and laboratory capacity is not discussed. Even if it were discussed, it is not within the gift of individual public analysts, or the association, to prevent laboratory closures or to ensure sufficient capacity.

The Government response is flawed because it does not deal with the Committee recommendation that they should ensure that there are sufficient properly trained public analysts. Why does that matter? It is not only the Committee, which heard powerful and compelling evidence about it, that concluded that it is important. The National Audit Office report, published earlier this month, leant heavily on—I would like to think—our work and on the report’s conclusions and recommendations. It stressed, as we did, that budget cuts coupled with a two thirds rise in reported food fraud have increased the risk of another horsemeat scandal. The NAO also said that the cuts in testing led to a loss of intelligence information, so that the Government

“failed to identify the potential risk of adulteration of beef with horsemeat, despite indications of heightened risk.”

The NAO report questions whether there will be sufficient capacity to respond to future incidents. I am mindful of what the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman), said about DEFRA being the fourth emergency service, and of the possibility that, given the dramatic decline over recent years in the number of public analysts and laboratories, there will not be the capability for detecting food fraud. I urge the Minister to respond to that concern.

I have covered the question of Europol, Interpol and our police bringing people to book, and discussed traceability. I want to make a final point. There is a richesse before us, and I could dwell on every recommendation and conclusion; I am sure that the Minister will remember the passion with which the Committee adopted the recommendations. I want now to focus on what the FSA’s role should be.

In our first report, we conclude:

“Whilst Ministers are properly responsible for policy, the FSA’s diminished role has led to a lack of clarity about where responsibility lies, and this has weakened the UK’s ability to identify and respond to food standards concerns.”

We found that the FSA and Government reacted in a “flat-footed” way and were

“unable to respond effectively within structures designed primarily to respond to threats to human health.”

We did not much care for the Government response, but I am sure that the Minister will try to justify the rather disappointing response that the

“Machinery of Government changes in 2010 led to some changes”.

The response went on to tell us what they were.

In our more recent report, to which we have only recently received the Government response, we reiterate our previous conclusion and confirm that we need

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greater clarity about the role of the FSA in major incidents. The point is that we accept that this is primarily a food-labelling issue, but there is the suggestion of fraud, to which the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) referred, on a massive scale, and we need the reassurance that the FSA is, in my words, fit for purpose. However, the Government response does not fit the bill.

We are told:

“The Government is concerned that the Committee may have misunderstood”—

I say to the Minister that that is a very dangerous allegation to make—

“the status and constitution of the FSA.”

We know, as the response states, that the FSA,

“as a non-Ministerial government department, does not report to any other department. The FSA is accountable to Parliament and reports…through Health Ministers.”

The National Audit Office confirms our initial conclusion that the problem is that the FSA reports to three different Departments. That is a source of concern. It is compounded by the fact that we are having review after review after review. We came to conclusions quite early on—in March, I think—about our fundamental concerns. We are now hurrying towards the end of the year. We have the benefit of Professor Pat Troop’s response to the incident. Her conclusions back up entirely what we say.

The question for the Minister is why the Government are not responding to our conclusions, to the review by Professor Troop and to the National Audit Office findings, but have called for another review. This is something that we used to say in opposition; it is not unfamiliar to me. Under the last Administration, as I am sure the hon. Member for Ogmore will remember, if there was a problem, we would have a review, then another review and then another review. Now, we need to see some action, so the fact that the Elliott review has been set up, will make an interim conclusion and will report finally only in the spring of next year is very disappointing and missing the point.

I would like to draw the strands together and confirm that this is not the time for another review. We need a fundamental rethink on the infrastructure, composition and role of the Food Standards Agency, what its relationships with the Departments are and who goes out and gives explanations to the public and to the industry in the event of an incident.

We need to see some movement on reducing the likelihood of future contamination by improving the traceability provisions and ensuring the integrity of each supply chain. It is very pleasing that in local butchers’ shops in my constituency and, I understand, across the country and in farm shops and at farmers’ markets, the purchasing of food has gone up incrementally. Everyone is buying local, because they know what they are buying. They know that it is beef or whatever the label says. As I said, that is very pleasing, but we need to restore public confidence in what is a multi-million-pound industry through supermarkets. We also need to look at the vexatious issue of there being a shortage of analysts and insufficient testing to put the consumer mind at rest.

I commend our two reports to the House. I have dwelt on three issues, but I would like to bring to the attention of the Minister and the shadow Minister

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our main concerns, which are set out in all our recommendations. Those have been supported by Professor Pat Troop’s review. She does not disagree with them one iota. We have also had the very powerful—it uses very strong language—report from the National Audit Office on “Food safety and authenticity in the processed meat supply chain”. I therefore now say to the Minister that this is a call for action, rather than for another review.

3.35 pm

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne, at this late hour on a Thursday afternoon. I should begin by declaring an interest. I am still involved in a farming business that produces red meat: beef and lamb. I commend the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), and the members of the Committee for the work that they have done on this very important matter. I also commend the NAO report that has recently been published.

The sound and fury has gone out of this matter for now, but that does not mean that it is not extraordinarily important. It is extraordinarily important for our farming communities that their product should not be contaminated again in the future and extraordinarily important for consumers that they should have the ability to choose what they want to eat, knowing that it is as described on the label. Sadly, however, the history of food is full of examples of contamination and adulteration. The watering down of beer is a heinous crime, but it has been perpetrated everywhere. It is not the only one, unfortunately.

I would like to draw a distinction between contamination and adulteration. As far as I am concerned, contamination is when a small quantity of extraneous material finds its ways into foodstuffs. That usually occurs because of negligence or carelessness in the preparation or processing of food, in relation either to buildings or to equipment. Sometimes contamination may not be serious. It may involve inert material. But sometimes, of course, it can be very serious indeed. One example is the poisonous material ergot in rye bread; I can think of other examples. It is also very serious when infective material gets into foodstuffs. Sadly, there are outbreaks of E. coli from time to time in this country. Of course, the Chairman of the Select Committee mentioned the presence of pork in food that is supposed to have been processed to an halal standard, which is grossly offensive to the Muslim community. That is particularly serious as well.

I define contamination as something that does not take place deliberately, but it quickly became apparent to me during the so-called horsemeat scandal that what was happening was not happening through carelessness. In the main, it was a deliberate attempt to make money out of fraud, and we should see it in that light. People from time to time do see the opportunity to do that. If they can introduce something into a foodstuff that does not necessarily alter its appearance, taste or consistency, they can get away with it for a short time before more sophisticated tests can be done on that foodstuff. The Chairman of the Committee mentioned the changes in the way in which certain foodstuffs, including meat, could be included in other foodstuffs.

Adulteration also occurs when we have high commodity prices for meat or for any foodstuff, and of course the price of meat has risen quite considerably. If it rises quickly, there are opportunities for the less scrupulous

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to introduce a cheaper product into what is a fairly expensive product. My criticism of the supermarket and meat processors still stands: rather than accepting that the price of the commodity had gone up, they were scouring the European markets and probably the world markets to find a cheaper product. That gave an opportunity for less scrupulous people to get involved and make money.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes a good contribution. He has a great background in this area. Does he agree that a signal change of the past few decades has made good governance necessary, as the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton said? Whereas a previous outbreak to do with either food providence or safety may have been relatively isolated in a region—I have had them in my area—nowadays the potential danger and risk are much greater, because they are transnational and affect the plates of far more consumers, potentially in many different countries? That is why governance is important.

Roger Williams: I agree. My hon. Friend—he is a Welsh MP with me, so I will call him that—reiterates the words of the Chair of the Select Committee. That was a conclusion the Committee came to.

I was going to say that part of the complexity with the process was that the contamination was not happening in only Britain or one region of Britain. Very long and complex food chains were undoubtedly involved, and part of the problem is that we do not know where some of the products originated. For me, one of the key things to come out of the NAO report is on page 5:

“Six months on, inquiries are still ongoing and the original source of the adulteration has not been identified.”

It goes on to say that some people have been arrested. For all that our Government have done and for all that Governments on the continent have done, we still do not know where the horsemeat entered the food chain. Until we can establish that, we will not have done a good job and we will not have deterred other people from trying to make opportunistic profits.

If we do not know where the meat came into the food chain, we have no idea what its provenance was. We do not know whether the animal was slaughtered in a registered slaughterhouse or the back shed of a farm somewhere. We have no idea about the safety of the meat. It appears to many of us that the crisis did not involve any human illness, but if we do not know the provenance of the meat, we do not know if that was by luck alone. It is key that we continue our work and work with our European partners on a governmental as well as a police level to identify where the horsemeat entered the food chain.

Huw Irranca-Davies: What are the hon. Gentleman’s views on the need for deep intelligence across Departments in analysing what is going on? There could have been a moment when the contamination could have been picked up. It is all very well saying that in hindsight, but it could have been detected. We had massive shipments of horses from Ireland and Northern Ireland into Britain for transport out of the UK, but they were not transported. They were disappearing. There were numbers in, but no numbers out. At some point, a good intelligence operation would have spotted that and flagged up the fact that those horses were going somewhere.

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Roger Williams: The hon. Gentleman raises another good point. We must use intelligence. When I was doing work on illegal imports of meat products from Africa, it became apparent that the people involved in that were also involved in other criminal activities, such as drug smuggling and people smuggling. The penalties for drug smuggling and smuggling individuals across borders were high, but the penalties for smuggling meat were low and yet profits were high. There was a huge incentive to get involved, because the smugglers would not end up in prison for very long, but would probably get a paltry little fine having made a lot of money. The hon. Gentleman gets the point: we must put pressure on our European partners to work with us to share intelligence, which is so important.

I believe that a single market is hugely important for British agriculture, but to have a single market, we must have the same standards in Europe that we expect in Britain. Only when we can rely on our European partners to deliver that famous level playing field can we have confidence in the single market. I want to say a few words about why a single market is important for British agriculture: 90% of Welsh lamb is consumed outside Wales and 40% of UK lamb is exported, mostly to continental Europe. Those of us in the farming business remember when that market could be open one day and shut another. We do not want things to be that way now; we want it to be as it is at the moment, with the market available to us every day of the year. We cannot be certain that we will have continuous access to the market if the conditions, processes and inspection regimes on the continent are not the same as those we have in Britain.

I call on the Minister to continue the work. The job of examining what went on is not finished. It has only just begun in terms of working with our European partners to ensure that processes are in place to ensure that such contamination does not happen in the future.

3.47 pm

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I welcome the new Minister to his place; we worked well together on the Select Committee and I look forward to him having views entirely consistent with those he had in Committee now he is a Minister. I am partly teasing him, but I look forward to working with him. I enjoyed his friendship on the Committee. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), the Chair of the Select Committee, on securing the debate, because it is necessary for us not to forget exactly what happened.

I want to concentrate on the consequences and on the many lessons that we need to learn. For many years, I have been saying that we have not had proper labelling of the origins of processed food, especially meat products, and the contamination has highlighted that hugely. Basically, the product was travelling all across Europe from the Republic of Ireland, Poland and Romania into Luxembourg and France—it was travelling all over the place. The trail—exporting from one country and importing to another—was almost impossible to follow.

As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) highlighted, the value of the processed meat is key. If someone bought a joint of beef and a joint of horse—we cannot do that in this country, but in

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many European countries they can—they would immediately be able to tell the difference. If we minced them up and put them in a burger, however, I suspect that when we actually looked at it physically, we would not see a great deal of difference. If horse meat is trading at a quarter to a third of the price of beef, it is tempting to the unscrupulous in the food processing industry to substitute one for the other.

Not only the Government but the large retailers should keep a check on the situation. If retailers are buying beef burgers for less than the cost of the beef that should be in them, they should ask how on earth a company can produce that product for that price. That is a lesson for the industry and the big retailers to learn. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire probably shares my view that although the big retailers are necessary, they have used their muscle over the years to drive down prices for primary producers and farmers. They have spent their lives doing it. This time they drove the price down too far, and people came in who said, “Okay, these big retailers want cheap burgers; well, we’ll mix in a bit of horse meat, and it’ll be fine.” That is where questions need to be asked.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton made the case that the Government need enough public analysts, but retailers also need to employ such people or franchise out the work to somebody else. When I go into a large supermarket, I expect to buy a product that is made of what it says on the label. That is the retailer’s responsibility; the Minister may well make that point later. Yes, it is the Government’s responsibility, but it is also very much the responsibility of the retailer.

I noticed that the Chair made a bit of a face when I said that one could tell the difference between a joint of horse meat and a joint of beef. Ethically, we in this country do not eat horse meat, but it is eaten in many countries across Europe, and it is legal. It is necessary to be able to slaughter horses for meat. There are so many horses in this country, some with huge welfare problems, that if we could not slaughter them, the welfare problems would be even larger. I would much rather those horses be slaughtered humanely in this country than taken on vast journeys across the continent in poor conditions to be slaughtered. We must remember that slaughtering and trading horse meat are not crimes in themselves.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman is making a good and cogent point. We must guard not only against inhumane transport but against the possibility that imports of horse meat from places that previously discarded the slaughter of horses, such as the United States—they are now slaughtered in other countries instead—might find their way back to us through Poland or the Czech Republic, with added ingredients such as phenylbutazone, known as bute.

Neil Parish: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It leads me neatly on to the fact that, as I said, horse meat must be traceable. It is not only a case of what is imported into this country. In America, there are many racehorses and other sorts of horse that are more likely to have been treated with all sorts of drugs throughout their lives. We must be careful of that.

We in this country must also be careful to ensure that we know where the horses that we slaughter have come from. At the moment, under the passport system, many

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horses have one, two or several passports, one of which is clean and says that the horse has not been injected with anything, and another one of which may have been used when the horse has been injected with various drugs throughout its life. We need a better passport system and a central database, so that we know where horses come from, to ensure that when they are slaughtered, we know that they are healthy. Although we may not eat the meat, it will be exported for someone else to eat. It is essential.

I believe that some good things will come out of this situation. As other Members have said, it would have been terrible if the contamination had led to a public health issue, but fortunately it did not. One or two horses slaughtered were found to have levels of phenylbutazone, but not enough to hurt anybody eating the meat. We must learn to ensure that horse meat is traceable in future, not because it should be mixed with beef and sold fraudulently but because the meat should be safe.

The other great lesson to be learned concerns the traceability of our own meat. People like farm-assured schemes, such as the red tractor promoted by the National Farmers Union and many others. As soon as horsegate—the problem with horse meat in beef burgers—occurred, people wanted meat from this country. I do not wish to be churlish, but Tesco did not decide to source all its meat from the British Isles out of the goodness of its heart; it decided that that was a good way to make consumers buy at Tesco.

Roger Williams: Was my hon. Friend amazed, like me, to hear that Tesco has said that British lamb is now out of season? I find that extraordinary, given that the UK produces lamb in season all year round.

Neil Parish: The fact is that for most grass-fed lamb from Wales, the west country and other parts of the country, the height of the season is exactly now, from September onwards. When I used to produce lambs, I did not feed them a lot of concentrates; I fattened them on grass, and they came out in September, October and November. Whoever put out that particular press release probably got it slightly wrong.

That takes me back to the fact that although Tesco wants to source British meat, which I welcome, it does so from a commercial point of view. Therefore, having systems in place to ensure the traceability of that meat is important. However, there is also a knock-on effect. At a certain conference in Manchester—I will not mention which one it was—I was talking to the poultry industry. Again, Tesco has decided to source all its poultry meat from the UK, which is great, but the problem is that it is absorbing all the poultry meat that we produce, so we need to produce more. To produce more poultry meat, of course, we need more poultry units, and to build more poultry units we need planning permission. All those things have a knock-on effect.

It is the same with the pig industry. We need more pigs and pork so, again, we need planning permission. Those Members who represent rural constituents will find that when a piggery or a poultry house must be built next door, individuals do not always welcome it with open arms. I understand that the Minister is not responsible for planning, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should make the case if we are to have more British meat. I am a great

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supporter of it; we are only 52% self-sufficient in meat, so there is much more that we could do. Production of poultry and pigs in particular can be built up quickly, but again, we must ensure that we have enough premises where they can be produced.

Many more people now ensure that they buy locally produced and British food, which is a great asset, but I also want them to be sure—again, this is a lesson to be learned—that when they go into a big retailer or other shop, they can pick up a product, especially a processed product, and be absolutely certain where it has come from. Sometimes my wife comes back with a product that she presents to me and says, “Where does that come from?” I read the label and it is more confusing than enlightening about where it has come from. I urge the Minister, newly in post, to realise that labelling of country of origin—knowing where a product is from—is fundamentally important. If it has been imported, so be it, but say so. If products are from all over the world, fine, but say so, so that people have a choice. I do not like the old system that states “product of the EU” and “processed in the UK”, and displays a Union Jack. Everybody picks it up, convinced that it is entirely a British product, when it is not. It is perfectly legal to do that, and that is what happens.

With the reports that we have had and what we have heard, we would all accept, to a degree, that we got away with it. It was not perfect, but we got away with it, despite the fact that it was a fraud and we were eating horse when we should have been eating beef. However, nobody was injured. We need to wake up to the fact that horse meat and slaughter need to be much more traceable. When people pick up products, particularly processed foods, they need to know exactly where they have come from. We want to ensure that the supermarkets that genuinely want to have British products are stocking them and that they have not come from somewhere else in the world. We expect our Minister, newly in post, to guarantee that all that will happen.

We can learn positive lessons. The fact that people now want to eat more home-produced meat is a good thing. Let us be absolutely certain in future that that is exactly what we are eating. Although Government have a responsibility, so do the large retailers and the processors that manufacture and process the products. They are the ones that acted illegally. Let us not forget that, whoever was at fault, it was illegal. It was fraud.

Finally, although I agree with the other hon. Members who have spoken, I fear that in the end we will find one or two small processors here and there who will be hung out to dry, and the rest of the larger processors and others will largely be left untouched. Certainly the Irish Government have been rather reticent about prosecuting anybody. I think that that is the tactful way of putting it. Also—the point was made earlier—when a member state of the European Union is having a problem, it should be brought to the notice of our authorities and others much more quickly, so that we can take action. There was definitely a slowness in the whole process. I look forward to the new Minister sorting it all out, and I again welcome him to his new post.

4.3 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): It is a delight to be here, as always. I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) and all her Committee

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members on securing this debate and on the sterling work that they have put in throughout this year. As a critical friend of the industry and of Government, they have scrutinised the causes and effects of and response to the food contamination scandal in a frank and honest way.

It is a great pleasure to follow the contributions from the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). They have great experience in terms of their personal backgrounds and in terms of Select Committees. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton made the point that we got away with it. That is the point that we want to focus on. It is not adequate to say that we got away with it. We need to ensure that, within the realms of all the identifiable risks that we can think of, we do not simply get away with it again. We need to put the right things in place to avoid it happening again. As has rightly been pointed out, fortunately there was not a major public safety scare, although there could have been. This was an issue of provenance. We need a fleet-footed response from all the agencies and Government and everybody else.

I also welcome to his new position as Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson) indicated dissent.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My apologies. I was expecting to see the other new Minister. I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson). It is a great position and a great Department. I am sure he will do a wonderful job. I am beginning to think that DEFRA Ministers have taken against me as they keep disappearing in front of me. His previous role as a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee stands him in good stead. As I draw on evidence and recommendations from the Committee’s two reports, I am conscious that he is a collective author of those words, findings and recommendations.

Dan Rogerson: One of the reports.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The Minister is a collective author of one of the reports, and there is no way in which he would seek, for whatever reason—under pressure from officials or his Secretary of State, or the lure of the red box or the trappings of a Minister—to resile from the positions that he laid out so very recently. He is a good and honourable man and will stand by his words.

This is a timely debate to look back at the lessons learnt to try to avoid repeating the same mistakes and to return confidence to an industry that was shaken badly. To put it bluntly, consumers were tricked, deceived and defrauded by criminals operating within or alongside the food chain. It is the same food supply chain that we trust to supply safe, nutritious, affordable food and drink to our household tables, our schools and hospitals, and our care homes and cafeterias. That supply chain betrayed us—nothing less. It would be wrong, particularly

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while criminal investigations are ongoing, to delve too deeply into specific companies and individuals. I think the public and consumer organisations will be rightly outraged if the criminals who infiltrated the supply chain are not brought to book. If complicity or duplicity is identified within the supply chain itself, those companies and individuals should also be brought to book.

Miss McIntosh: It would be interesting to know what the hon. Gentleman’s potential future Administration would do to check the integrity of the supply chain. I am mindful of the fact that it was a Labour Government who set up the Food Standards Agency, and one of the difficulties that I highlighted is that it reports to at least two, potentially three, Departments. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the retailers, but we rely hugely on the work of the FSA to test the supply chain.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention and the focus that she and the Select Committee have put on not only the FSA, but the overall issue of food governance and the integrity and coherence of it. We have repeatedly made it clear from the early days when its responsibilities were split up that we had concerns about what might happen. Her Committee’s report and the report of the National Audit Office have made it clear that those concerns did not cause the crisis, but contributed to a delayed reaction, which I will come to in a moment. There is confusion at national, local and intergovernmental level. I shall not call for a review today. I shall echo her call for action and for the Government to introduce proposals to change the structure of food governance.

Tesco, the UK’s market-leading supermarket, notably and admirably fessed up to its responsibilities. It said, “We get it.” It took out full-page advertisements coinciding—coincidentally, I am sure—with the NFU conference in February, and it is seeking to re-engineer its supply chains and get closer to primary producers. It has a way to go, as has already been mentioned. I visited Tesco’s headquarters and we went through this in detail. Although it has a journey to make, I do not doubt its sincerity and ambition to do so. It is consumer-focused; there is a reason why it is doing this. Other large retailers have already developed shorter supply chains or other methods of ensuring the provenance of their food.

In the early stages, many took a different approach and frankly said, “Not us, guvnor.” They pointed to abroad or to smaller suppliers, international criminals, other third parties and, frankly, anybody but themselves. It is clear that the criminal activities of some have damaged public confidence in the whole supply chain. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee spoke for many in the country, when it reported that it could only

“conclude that British consumers have been cynically and systematically duped in pursuit of profit by elements within the food industry.”

Whether that was criminality, negligence, complicity or failure of due diligence through the whole supply chain, from major processors and supermarkets down to the very small players, all were to varying degrees at fault in causing the failures, and all have responsibility in rectifying them and restoring trust and confidence.

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I welcome the letter that I received yesterday from ABP, a dominant player in the UK and European beef processing market, which tells me that it supplies more than 20 countries and has a network of over 15,000 farmers. In the letter, the company acknowledges—it cannot deny—the presence of horsemeat in some of its frozen beef products over the past year, but states:

“It was certainly not an activity sanctioned by ABP in any way at any level”.

It goes on to make it clear that the company is not subject to any ongoing investigations.

In some ways, it is unfair to pick out ABP, because it was not alone in a complex and vulnerable supply chain that put beef adulterated with horsemeat and, for good measure, with trace elements—thank goodness, only trace elements—of phenylbutazone or bute into our homes, hospitals, schools and canteens, as well as, through food distribution companies, into Royal Ascot and the royal household. When it comes to food adulteration, we are genuinely—and right royally—all in it together.

As the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton said, those who came out well from the crisis were the butchers, local abattoirs, and those in local food networks and short supply chains, whose customers could prove where their food came from and what it was. The upside of the crisis is that it has reignited a major debate about our relationship with the food we eat, which I hope will lead to changes in how we produce and value our food.

Much of the modern supply chain is long, complex and international, with multiple handling and processing operations and multiple opportunities for adulteration. The lesson for those in wider supply chains, especially the major and dominant supermarkets, processors and distributors, is that no one can escape responsibility for the mess we got ourselves into or avoid responsibility for restoring trust in those supply chains. It is not good enough to say, “It wasn’t us, guvnor,” because as far as the consumer is concerned, it was.

I want to turn to the issues of food governance identified by the Select Committee’s two reports and highlighted in a timely report by the National Audit Office, on 10 October, entitled, “Food safety and authenticity in the processed meat supply chain”.

I tell the Minister that the Government must clearly now take responsibility: they are also in the dock and must fess up. They must answer criticisms of their role in failing to ensure effective governance of the food manufacturing sector. Although I commend the industry for working alongside UK, Irish and EU agencies to strengthen the testing and tracking of food products in response to the horsemeat crisis, I cannot yet commend the UK Government, whose response to the crisis was hampered by structural problems of their own making. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which the Minister was a member, put that succinctly in its first report, stating that

“the current contamination crisis has caught the FSA and Government flat-footed and unable to respond effectively within structures designed primarily to respond to threats to human health.”

The National Audit Office’s No. 1 key finding was:

“A split since 2010 in the responsibilities for food policy in England has led to confusion among stakeholders and no obvious benefit to those implementing controls.”

That split in responsibilities is, of course, the one that was devised and implemented in 2010 not by the Minister,

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who is only just in post, but by his coalition Government. They are the architect of their own misfortune, but more importantly, of what others have described as the flat-footed response to the food adulteration scandal. The food sector and the consumer deserve better. It is not the fault of the FSA, but of the Government who split its responsibilities.

Neil Parish: I accept, to some degree, the hon. Gentleman’s assertions about changes to the FSA, but there had been no testing of horsemeat for 10 years or more, and the situation arose only when we started testing horsemeat. What matters is not the structure, but the fact that we were just not testing. All through his watch and that of his Government, nobody was testing horsemeat. That is why I think that he is being a little disingenuous, if I may say so.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I utterly refute the idea of my being disingenuous, because I am citing the words, evidence and recommendations of the Select Committee and National Audit Office reports. The criticisms are not mine, although I entirely agree with them, because we said the same from the outset, after the FSA was split up. I am not being disingenuous, but frank: I am saying what I have consistently said month after month, and year after year, and that is what our position has been.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but I am hammering the Government because governance is central to how we resolve the situation. We can ask the industry to do many things—we have done so, and the industry is getting on with them—and agencies are helping it, but unless we resolve the fundamental issue of how to bring together the entirety of the food industry coherently and not split it between Departments, we will be back here again. That is what his Committee concluded.

The Government response to the concerns is worryingly complacent. The document states, on page 7:

“The Government is concerned that the Committee may have misunderstood the status and constitution of the FSA”,

and it then defends the FSA in the following three paragraphs. If the Select Committee has misunderstood the FSA, so have the National Audit Office and many other well-informed, critical friends of the food industry who want the Government to look more fundamentally at the FSA and to review the cack-handed way in which its responsibilities were diced and sliced in 2010.

The Government should adopt the Tesco approach: fess up to this aspect of their responsibility, learn the lessons that they must learn and deal properly with the role of the FSA and food governance, instead of tinkering at the edges. It takes a big man or woman to accept that they were wrong, but I hope that the new Minister, in whom I have confidence, will be able to do so.

Let me ask the Minister some questions that stem from the Select Committee and National Audit Office reports. Coming new into the post, does he accept, from what he has looked at, that the Government’s and the FSA’s early response to the crisis was flat-footed and slow, as has been said, partly thanks to the Government’s machinery of government changes? Does he accept that the Government’s decision to split the FSA roles directly led to confusion and a lack of clarity about responsibilities

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at the outset of the crisis, both between Whitehall Departments and agencies and between local government enforcement and the FSA?

Does the Minister accept that, as highlighted by the National Audit Office, confusion at local and national level still exists today, despite the Government’s well-meaning reforms, which signifies that deeper reforms or the unwinding of some of the 2010 reforms might be needed? Does he accept that, despite strong Government rebuttals back in February and March, the introduction of the banned substance phenylbutazone or bute into the food chain via horsemeat, albeit in trace elements, might have turned the situation from a food provenance issue into a food safety crisis? If he does not accept that, I ask him to read the National Audit Office report.

How does the Minister respond to criticisms that intelligence sharing, especially between food authorities and Departments in Ireland and the UK, has been weakened by the coalition’s machinery of government changes? Does he believe that reducing food testing by local authorities by a quarter, linked to cuts in funding and budgetary stresses, contributed to a lack of deeper intelligence from local sources that might have picked up the risks earlier? To turn to the point made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton in his intervention, one of the things that the National Audit Office picked up on was the lack of deep intelligence down on the ground. Although it applauds a risk-based approach, deep intelligence would have flagged up these sorts of incidents at an early stage.

How does the Minister respond to fears that the closure of four public control laboratories in the past three years combined with a reduction in public analysts from 40 to 29 since 2010 raises the potential risk that we will be unable to respond to any future incident of this type?

My final question echoes a concern of the Select Committee and of the wider public. Where are the prosecutions, the fines, the penalties, the custodial sentences, and the naming and shaming of the guilty parties? I realise that the Minister will not be able to go into detail about the ongoing investigations, but we need to know whether we are talking about one or two bad apples or a fundamental problem with a rotten barrel. The Select Committee asks whether this is

“a complex network of traders and processors acting fraudulently to deceive consumers and retailers.”

The longer we wait for conclusions to the investigations, the more the feeling grows that people are escaping justice and that the networks that caused this criminality are also delaying that justice. We cannot expect the Minister to comment in detail on investigations that are under way, but I hope that he can at least inform us of some progress.

At the outset, I reiterated the justified criticism by the Select Committee of the flat-footed response by the FSA and the Government. Its call for stronger powers for the FSA were re-emphasised by the head of the National Audit Office only last week. He stated:

“The January 2013 horsemeat incident has revealed a gap between what citizens expect of the controls over the authenticity of their food, and the effectiveness of those controls on reality. The division of responsibilities for food safety and authenticity has created confusion.”

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In conclusion, while Labour rightly demands—I know the Minister will demand this as well—that the food sector step up and take responsibility for its failures and commends the sector for the work it has done so far in recent months, it also demands the same response from our Government. The sins of the father do not have to be visited on the son. The new Under-Secretary of State can acknowledge that the 2010 FSA machinery of government changes were wrong-headed, that they played a contributory factor in retarding the early response to the crisis, that they are a risk factor, as the NAO says, in any future large-scale food adulteration or contamination episodes, and that he should now step up and act for the good of consumers, the food sector and farmers and for his own peace of mind. Last week, the head of the National Audit Office said:

“The Government needs to remove this confusion, and improve its understanding of potential food fraud and how intelligence is brought together and shared.”

I look forward to the Under-Secretary of State doing just that, beginning with his response. I wish him well in taking forward the Government’s action on this matter.

Sandra Osborne (in the Chair): The debate must end by 16.43, and it would be appreciated if the Minister would leave some time at the end for the Chair of the Select Committee to respond.

4.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Dan Rogerson): It is a pleasure, Mrs Osborne, to serve under your chairmanship and to stand here as both a Minister and a member of the Select Committee—at least in name, if not in application. The House will remove me from the Committee in due course.

Before I get on to substantive matters, let me say that it has been an absolute pleasure and an honour to serve on that Committee for more than eight years, under the excellent chairmanship of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) and also of Michael Jack, who did fine work as Chair of the Committee in the previous Parliament. It is also a pleasure to follow all those who spoke in this debate; they spoke with passion and brought insight. I may not agree with all the conclusions that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) has drawn, but I pay tribute none the less to his experience and the care that he has taken in preparing for this debate. As he knows, I have family roots in his constituency, so it is always a pleasure to hear from him.

I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee and colleagues for securing this debate, so that we can explore this issue in some depth. As highlighted, the incident has been the subject of a number of reviews and reports, which reflects the level of public concern and the fact that it is essential that consumers have confidence in the food that they buy or are served.

Food fraud is completely unacceptable, and that is what we are dealing with here. Consumers have every right to expect food to be correctly described. It is up to the whole food supply chain to ensure that such an incident does not happen again. As the Committee’s report says, industry’s assurance measures and the action that it takes to ensure the traceability of products are key to a sustainable food chain.