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House of Lords

Wednesday, 13 May 2009.

3 pm

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

House of Lords: Pork and Bacon


3.07 pm

Asked By Lord Hoyle

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, all House of Lords refreshment outlets serve only English pork and bacon, except for the River Restaurant, which serves Dutch bacon. This is because English bacon, at £6.71 per kilo, is considerably more expensive than Dutch, at £4.85 per kilo. If we were to serve English bacon, the cost of a rasher would increase from 25p to 45p because of the higher price and lower yield. In order to ensure value for money for our customers, the Refreshment Committee reaffirmed the Refreshment Department’s policy on 26 March.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply, although there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy about it. After all, I and many others on all sides of the House have argued that it should not be a matter of price. We have urged the British consumer to buy British bacon because of the higher welfare standards that are applied in this country. Will the noble Lord also take into account the presence in Dutch bacon of a deadly form of MRSA, ST398, which can cause skin infection, heart trouble and pneumonia? Is he not putting people in this country at risk, particularly as the strain has passed from animals to humans? Indeed, when Dutch farmers go into hospital, they go into isolation. Why is he putting the British consumer and those who buy bacon in this House at risk in this way?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, the noble Lord’s first comment was to accuse me of hypocrisy, which I find slightly strange. The question is one of price. It is our job to offer value for money to our customers in the River Restaurant. The market is price-sensitive and we charge considerably less than the House of Commons, which serves British bacon. Ours is about half the price. Bearing in mind that the staff are some of the lower paid in the Palace of Westminster, I think that that is right. It is fine for people such as the noble Lord and, indeed, me to buy British bacon for ourselves, but when we are dealing with other people we have to offer value for money. As far as MRSA is concerned, I read the article in, I think, the Daily Express a couple of weeks ago. I do not think that it has been followed up by anybody else,

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so I do not know whether it is true or not. If it were true, it would be a matter for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and not for us to deal with.

Baroness Shephard of Northwold: My Lords, I do not know whether the Chairman of Committees is aware that next week is British Tomato Week. All of next week, extremely competitively priced British-produced tomatoes will be served in all the restaurants in the Palace. I note that the Question was confined to the price of bacon. Might we have a promotional event for pork products that is analogous to British Tomato Week?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I was unaware of British Tomato Week, I must say. I am sure that British tomatoes are extremely competitively priced and extremely good, especially those that come from the Isle of Wight, as many of them do. However, as I said in my original Answer, the pork served in the House of Lords is all British; it is just the bacon where the price is completely uncompetitive.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, is the Chairman of Committees aware that we are not preparing to throw tomatoes next week, but the reason for the differential in cost between British and Dutch bacon—and, indeed bacon from other parts of the world—is that our welfare standards for keeping pigs are really good and that, by choosing bacon that is not sourced from the United Kingdom, we are not assisting the cause of animal welfare?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am aware of the reason for the price differential and the problems that that has caused to British farmers. Unfortunately, the decision was made many years ago that we should pre-empt the regulations that would come in for everyone. I will not comment on whether or not that was a good decision, but it leaves us in a position where British bacon is, sadly, not competitive.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, first, I declare an interest as an occasional pig keeper, although I do not make bacon from my pigs. Is the noble Lord aware that bacon cuts are often cheaper because they have lots of additives and water? Has he tried the frying test with the bacon that is used in the River Room to compare it with the British bacon that he has been buying by seeing how much it shrivels?

The Chairman of Committees: No, my Lords, I must admit that I have not. The test, I think, is in the consumption by the customers down in the River Room, many of whom, I must say, are not British and therefore probably do not mind where the bacon comes from. They obviously find it good value for money.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter: My Lords, when the noble Lord speaks of British pork being served in the premises of this House, is he talking about the source of the meat or about where it is processed and packaged? He may well be aware of the British Pig Executive’s recent claim that an astounding 70 per cent of the

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nearly 1 million tonnes of pork products imported to this country falls well below British animal welfare standards. Much of that is labelled as British because it is packed and processed here. What assurance can he give to Members of your Lordships’ House that we can know the true quality and the true source of all products consumed here?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I hope that, when I said that all the pork products apart from the bacon were British, I was telling the truth and they really are British. If I find that I am wrong and that they have been imported into this country and labelled as British, that would be extremely bad news.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, is the Chairman of Committees aware that a friend of mine came back from Mexico recently thinking that he had symptoms of swine flu? He rang the NHS Direct hotline and all he got was crackling on the line.

The Chairman of Committees: No, my Lords, I was not aware of that.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, I will follow the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, by saying that there is a lot of disease and antibiotic use on the continent of Europe. Members of this House will recall that this country banned the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, which had a very salutary effect. Now we learn that antibiotics are used at the end of a growth period for finishing off both pigs and poultry. Is the noble Lord aware of this and are the Government of this country doing anything comparable to the banning of growth promoters?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I was not aware of that use of antibiotics. I am aware that we joined the Common Market some years ago, which means that we cannot distinguish between bacon and other products produced in this country and those produced in other EU countries. As I said, the problem arose a long time ago when we adopted higher standards earlier than other EU countries. When those countries come into line, no doubt we will find that British bacon is again competitive with continental bacon.

Health: PVL


3.16 pm

Asked By Baroness Masham of Ilton

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, in 2007, 1,206 Panton-Valentine Leukocidin positive cases were reported to the Health Protection Agency. On the second point

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raised by the noble Baroness, although data are not available to calculate the incidence of PVL infections, it is estimated that less than 2 per cent of Staphylococcus aureus infections are PVL positive.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. Is she aware that this is a particularly nasty toxin that mixes with MRSA and causes the white cells to be killed? Therefore it is exceedingly dangerous. People are dying because they are not diagnosed; often they are young children or students. Will the noble Baroness make this a notifiable condition and send guidelines to primary care staff and also to schools and clubs?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite correct that this is an extremely unpleasant infection; but fortunately it is extremely rare. Very few infections are notifiable diseases—generally they are those where a public health action is required. Available data do not suggest that this is required for PVL, but we are keeping this under constant review. For example, notification regulations are currently being updated, and there will be provision to add new infections as necessary.

The noble Baroness is also correct that our priority is to ensure that doctors and other clinicians are aware of how to diagnose and manage this infection, because it does need to be managed very quickly. We are also making sure that information is available to healthcare workers in primary care and to GPs. Information is also being made available through the HPA to other workers who are dealing particularly with young people.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, what research is being conducted into PVL?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, because this is a very serious—if very rare—illness, we are sponsoring two major projects on the prevalence of PVL in different populations. The first is to determine the proportion of skin and soft-tissue infections when people come into emergency departments. The second is a study of nasal carriage from a random sample of people in the south-west. We are asking GPs to provide us with samples where there are no clinical symptoms, so we can see how prevalent it is among the general population. In addition, we have commissioned PVL testing of stored samples of Staphylococcus aureus in a Birmingham hospital.

Lord McColl of Dulwich: My Lords, although it is an uncommon condition, it is serious so why does not the Minister consider making it a notifiable disease for a trial period of, say, a few months? It is a very serious infection indeed.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Lord is right: it is very serious, as I said, but, as I also said, most notifiable diseases are ones where there is a health protection issue. We are keeping the condition under review and we are collecting data. I am not ruling out making it a notifiable disease; I am just saying that at the moment, we do not think that it is necessary.

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Baroness Tonge: My Lords—

Lord Walpole: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, why do we not hear from the Liberal Democrats? We should have time to hear from the Cross Benches as well.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, it is indeed a very serious infection, as is swine flu. Does the Minister not agree that all infections can be prevented by good personal and household hygiene, efficient community services, clean water and good nursing techniques, all promoted by Florence Nightingale 150 years ago? Will she undertake to visit the museum across the road as soon as possible, buy a copy of Notes on Nursing and make sure that everyone in the Department of Health reads it?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness. She is not the first person today to suggest that I should visit the Florence Nightingale exhibition, and I will do so.

Lord Walpole: My Lords, will it be possible in future to be vaccinated against these infections?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I do not know the answer to that, but I undertake to find out for the noble Lord. At the moment, we are surveying it, identifying it and making sure that information is out there so that doctors and clinicians recognise it and treat it as quickly as it needs to be.

Lord Turnberg: My Lords, although extremely rare, this infection is very dangerous because of the speed with which it kills. There is usually little or no time to wait for the relevant tests to come back from the laboratory. What is desperately needed is a rapid bedside diagnostic test. Is my noble friend aware of any research going on to provide a test such as the one that is becoming available for haemolytic Streptococcus?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I am indeed aware of that. My noble friend is completely correct to say that bedside identification is necessary. It takes 24 hours to get absolute confirmation, and my noble friend is right: that is not quick enough. However, the disease can be treated by normal antibiotics, so we just need to get on and treat it.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, in view of the similarity of the early stages of PVL infection and swine flu, and, as has been mentioned, the tremendous urgency of having an accurate diagnosis, because if PVL is not treated, it can rapidly be fatal, what guidance is the Ministry giving to the medical profession on the issue?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, there are two forms of guidance: one provided by the Health Protection Agency and the other provided by the British Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. I have given the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, part of the guidance that has been issued; I will be very happy to make that available in the Library.

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Civil Service


3.23 pm

Asked By Lord Sheldon

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Royall of Blaisdon): My Lords, as set out in the Queen's Speech and in my Answer to noble Lords in January, the Government continue to develop our proposals on constitutional renewal, including the Civil Service provisions, and will bring them forward as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but is she aware that we have now been waiting for more than 10 years for a solution, and that in the past five years, there has been some comment as to when things would happen? We have had some further comments this afternoon. Can my noble friend tell us when we will actually get the legislation and put it on the statute book?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I am well aware of the long wait that has ensued. I think that my noble friend must have a recurring reminder in his diary to hold the Government to account on this matter; I am very grateful. I can merely repeat that we will bring forward those proposals as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the independence of the Civil Service has been gravely undermined by making it part of the project of the Labour Government? Does she also accept that the presence of so many special advisers—at the last count there were 24 in No.10 Downing Street alone—has made the independence of the Civil Service very difficult?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: No, my Lords, I believe that our Civil Service is wholly impartial, and I celebrate and welcome that. The number of special advisers has nothing to do with the impartiality of the Civil Service.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, the time of this Parliament is running out. Will the Government acknowledge that the Joint Committee of the two Houses found little to complain about in the part of the Constitutional Renewal Bill that was concerned with the Civil Service, and suggested that it might be severed from the other matters, which were considerably more controversial? In view of the fact that it is not just 10 years since the Civil Service has come under discussion, but nearer 150 years, since the Northcote-Trevelyan report, will the Government, even at this late hour, give us a commitment to introduce the Bill before the Summer Recess in respect of the Civil Service?

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Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the Joint Committee did an absolutely splendid job, and as many people have in the past, I thank it for its excellent work. I can merely repeat that we will bring forward these proposals as soon as parliamentary time allows. It has taken 150 years, but at least we have produced a draft Bill, and are proposing to bring legislation before this House.

Lord Neill of Bladen: My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. That committee twice recommended that there should be a Civil Service Bill introduced rapidly, and on both occasions, if my recollection is correct, that recommendation was welcomed by the Government. The earliest occasion was 1998—more than 10 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, said. However, that was not the first time the proposal had been made. Action is called for very swiftly.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, it will come forward as swiftly as possible.

Lord Bates: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Civil Service will welcome any opportunity to have its core values and impartiality guaranteed in law? Given that there has been considerable delay in bringing this measure forward, would she consider introducing a mirror provision that would place a statutory duty on Ministers to respect that impartiality and the values of the Civil Service at all times?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, as I mentioned earlier, our Civil Service is completely impartial. The core values and duties of the Civil Service as set out in the code, including impartiality, are well respected now, although I agree that it would be good to put that on the statute book. Ministers uphold and respect the code of practice as it stands, and I am confident that they will respect whatever law comes forward.

Lord Tyler: My Lords, do the Government accept that the members of the Joint Committee were concerned about the number and role of special advisers? Does the Minister accept that the code for special advisers needs to be reviewed and brought before Parliament—as was recommended by a number of the members of that committee—and that if we are to avoid a repetition of the Damian McBride affair, this is very urgent?

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, we have a very solid code in respect of special advisers. While the Damian McBride case was absolutely appalling, and we all loathe and abhor what happened, having these provisions in law would not have prevented somebody doing that. I entirely condemn what Mr McBride did, but I do not think that a law would necessarily have stopped it.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, should there be a separate Bill for the Civil Service, as recommended by the Joint Committee on which I had the privilege to serve? Reasons were given.

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