Food Hygiene

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th February 1958.

Alert me about debates like this

7.22 p.m.

Photo of Mr Frederick Willey Mr Frederick Willey , Sunderland North

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Food Hygiene (Amendment) Regulations, 1957 (S.I., 1957, No. 2157), dated 12th December, 1957, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17th December, be annulled. It is typical of the delightful surprises we have in our debates that we should turn now from grave matters of defence to shrimps, prawns and pickled onions. The matter is not without importance. I am glad to see that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health is present, and I ask him vicariously to apologise on behalf of his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, because I notice that, whereas these Regulations are signed by the Minister of Health, they are signed only by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. This is a matter on which we are entitled to an explanation. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have made the point on previous occasions that, unless we have an adequate explanation, we expect to see Statutory Instruments signed by the responsible Ministers. Although the Parliamentary Secretary is in a white sheet and his Minister took the trouble to sign these Regulations, I hope he will be able to explain why, in the case of the Ministry of Food, neither the Minister nor one of the two Parliamentary Secretaries signed them.

I do not think I shall be expected to speak at length about shrimps, prawns and pickled onions. The point arising on these Regulations is a limited one. I am not allergic to shrimps, prawns and pickled onions. We are not praying against them as substances, but because we are concerned with the way in which they are processed. These are amending Regulations. They amend the principal Regulations, the Food Hygiene Regulations, 1955, which, by Regulation 7—if I may put it generally—legislate against food being processed by outworkers. The Government took the view, which was shared by a number of hon. Members, that because of the dangers which are inherent in any such process, we should end the processing of food in the homes of outworkers.

We may assume that to be the view of the Food Hygiene Advisory Council, which represented all sections of the food trades. Subsequently, during an Adjournment debate, the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser)—we are glad to see the hon. Member present—very persuasively pleaded the case for Morecambe shrimps and explained lucidly the difficulties of some of his constituents. I do not wish to anticipate anything the hon. Gentleman may say this evening, but the case he made out was that it was a seasonal trade and supplies were uneven; so that it was difficult for Morecambe fishermen, who quite properly and within the Regulations, peeled shrimps at home, to have to do so on every occasion and not continue sending shrimps to the homes of outworkers when there were large quantities of them to be dealt with.

We know that there have been exhaustive inquiries about the practice. I may say by comment that the inquiries were not altogether satisfactory, in the sense that we found that some sales are made direct without the boiling process which was pleaded in aid of the argument that there was no danger to the consumer. We learned also that some of the premises were not altogether suitable. I assume that the Government are bringing forward these Regulations on the ground that, in spite of these two objections, they are satisfied that adequate safeguards can be provided.

I am not well informed about prawns and pickled onions. I am obliged to the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale for much of the information I have about shrimps. But, if we are to agree to these Regulations, I think we should be equally satisfied about prawns and pickled onions. I have no doubt that some of my hon. Friends may be well versed about prawns and pickled onions, but having given the grounds for the exception made out by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale regarding shrimps, I do not see on the face of it a straight forward case for an exception for pickled onions. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will accept the burden of satisfying the House that there is a case for prawns, which are analogous to shrimps, and also for pickled onions.

There are many reasons why we should not accept such an exception being made in the present Regulations. Even if provision is made to ensure cleanly premises and cleanly practices, a burden is added to inspection if the number of premises is to be increased. The hon. Gentleman will also agree that this is inspection of domestic premises, people's homes. Certainly we on these benches do not want to extend the practice of allowing inspectors to inspect people's homes. We want to limit that so far as possible. We do not want unnecessary snooping or to provide a wider field for inspection than we are absolutely obliged to provide.

At the same time, I am sure my hon. Friends would agree that where there are small businesses and it is possible to keep such people in business, we should endeavour to do so. We have no desire to use such Regulations as these unnecessarily to drive small people out of business. We realise that that was one of the difficulties about the Food Hygiene Regulations. Provided we can always be satisfied that there will be cleanly practices and cleanly premises, so far as possible we should endeavour to avoid prejudicing people in a small way of business.

It seems that these considerations have been borne in mind by the Advisory Council and the Government. I assume that the Advisory Council agrees with the Government in the proposed amendment. I realise that the Regulations seek to identify the premises, which is the first essential, but that does not overcome the objection to increasing the number of premises to be inspected and, therefore, the costs of inspection. From a food hygiene point of view, the Regulations endeavour to make premises where the process is carried on identifiable. They also place a burden on the person putting out the work to be responsible for the condition of the out premises, which is very proper. They also make the premises subject to some of the other Regulations affecting cleanliness of equipment and premises and cleanly practices.

It seems to us that before we can agree to these Regulations we have to be satisfied that the Parliamentary Secretary can make a case on the general ground that it is otherwise impossible satisfactorily to provide for these processes being carried out. If he makes that case I should say he has done what he can to see that cleanly practices and cleanly equipment and premises should be enforced. If we should be persuaded by what he says I would then ask him to keep the matter under review. This is a precedent which will have to be very closely watched.

To return to the main point, we are praying against these Regulations because we feel that this is an exception which ought not to be lightly tolerated. Obviously, the Food Hygiene Advisory Council took the same view when the principal Regulations were drafted. Although the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale made a powerful case in respect of the Morecambe shrimpmen, so far no case has been made in relation to prawns and pickled onions.

We are praying against these Regulations and, if necessary, will oppose the Government. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will accept the Prayer. It is right and proper before we agree to food processes being permitted in people's homes that the Parliamentary Secretary should be satisfied that there is no alternative without unfair prejudice to people in the trade and that he is taking every possible precaution to ensure that the rules of food hygiene are being observed.

7.35 p.m.

Photo of Dr Dickson Mabon Dr Dickson Mabon , Greenock

beg to second the Motion.

We would very much appreciate the comments of the Parliamentary Secretary on the views of the Food Hygiene Advisory Council on this matter. We recall the reply made by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health in response to the speceh by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) in April, 1956. The hon. Lady, the then Parliamentary Secretary, made what I thought a very good case in support of public health. I cannot appreciate the fact that these Regulations should come forward in this form unless all the points the hon. Lady made so cogently then are answered now by the present Parliamentary Secretary. It seems invidious for the Government to present an unanswered case one night and to rescind it some other night. The Parliamentary Secretary should welcome the opportunity to explain all these things to us.

We recall that the Food Hygiene Advisory Council is most concerned that the same standards of food supervision and hygiene should apply in these various premises as in other premises, which are statutorily bound by Regulation 7. Although the Regulations set out the requirements, there is no indication how they are to be carried out by the premises to be exempted under Part III of the original Regulations. There is a great deal of doubt about the effect of the consumption of this food as reflected in the statistics for England and Wales. As a Scottish Member I am particularly pleased to be showing my interest in a United Kingdom matter and to refer to a Report on health particularly in relation to England and Wales. I can exercise my duties as a United Kingdom Member here and am not simply, in the way in which we are often accused, exercising parish pump pressure.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham All Saints

Is there such a thing in Scotland?

Photo of Dr Dickson Mabon Dr Dickson Mabon , Greenock

Yes, there is.

I wish to refer to the Ministry of Health Report for 1956 and to the statistics it gives about food poisoning. The hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale made a most remarkable statement. I have no doubt that he believed it, but I should like to have the evidence. I should like to believe it, but I do not know whether it is true. He said that no shrimp ever caused food poisoning to anyone. I may have paraphrased what he said, but I hope I have not done him an injustice. He gave the impression that in his knowledge of this very formidable constituency interest he would be aware of any case of poisoning. We do not have evidence on the other side, and there may be argument as to who provides the onus of proof. In page 57 of the Report to which I have referred, it is stated that of 7,713 incidents of food poisoning—very painful incidents, I assure the House—in that year, 3,163 were by casual agents unknown.

I do not know how it is possible for anyone to claim that foods of this kind cannot fall within a category which might be providing the casual agents unknown. It is not some minor percentage of the whole, but is almost—though not quite—half all the infections of food poisoning. On the other hand, we know that many cases of food poisoning, although they are notifiable when the doctor encounters them, are not notified because the doctor never encounters them. It may be that people weather the storm—the intestinal storm, perhaps. They get over it, and they are never quite certain what item or, what meal caused the upset.

It is therefore a very brave man—the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale is a very brave man—who says that this food has never caused any food poisoning and who doubts whether we need worry about the standards which prevail in the outhouses of his constituency which prepare these creatures before they are pushed on to the public market.

I want to direct the attention of the House to the problem of potted shrimps. I am not well up in this matter, of course, but I know that there are boiling and scalding processes, which would take us well within the realm of good hygiene, but potted shrimps are merely shrimps partially boiled, cleaned, I hope, and then larded with hot margarine or butter. I suggest that there lie the possibly doubtful factors in the ill effects—if there is an ill effect—which shrimps may have when consumed as food.

Let me try to develop the point. The worst kind of food poisoning arises from the reheating of meats which have previously been cooked. It is not simply the application of heat to a food which causes this but the application of a certain degree of heat which, far from destroying organisms, in fact enhances their ability to increase among themselves. It appears, as a result, that when we partially heat a food which may be infected with a very tiny quantity of organisms, it is made more dangerous that it was previously, before the additional warmed material, in this case butter or margarine, is added.

I am sure that the Food Hygiene Advisory Council must have looked into this matter very thoroughly. This process must have caused the Council a great deal of concern and it must have an opinion on the matter which substantiates the Minister's conviction that these Regulations can be passed unamended and still leave us sure that there will be no increase in the notification of food poisoning.

If I were the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health I should be very worried about this, because the figures of notifications of food poisoning have shown a decided increase for the last dozen years or so. If one looks at the figures for 1955 and compares them with the figures for 1956, one sees a substantial rise in notifications. As I have suggested, there is a great deal of worry in many people's minds about this, because with the advent of the National Health Service people are becoming more conscious that these upsets can cause a great deal more harm than many previous generations believed.

Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Reading

I am sure that it has not escaped my hon. Friend's attention that the dozen years to which he referred, in which there has been an alarming increase in the notification of food poisoning, also constitute a period in which there has been a substantial increase in the consumption of shell fish.

Photo of Dr Dickson Mabon Dr Dickson Mabon , Greenock

I am indebted to my hon. Friend for that information. It is true that the consumption of shell fish has risen substantially in this country.

I lead from that point to the next which I want to make, and it concerns the extent to which these fish are said to cause allergies. The shrimp, like all these crustaceans, is a very strange creature. These creatures bring into susceptible human systems foreign matter about which we are not quite sure. It could reasonably be argued in medical circles that the presence of some commensal organism, some innocent staphylococcus or even some vindictive salmonella, together with the shrimp in question, might cause more harm than its presence in any other food. In medicine we know that shrimps, prawns and similar fish cause a large number of allergies for people with certain sensitivities. They cause allergies of all kinds—hay fever, multifarious blemishes and dermatitis of all kinds. We know from experience that these things can arise from the ingestion of shrimps and other shell fish.

I enjoy shrimps very much, particularly, I am sorry to say, potted shrimps, and I regard myself as having a reasonably good constitution, but in certain con- ditions, when I am working very hard or when, in popular parlance, I am run down, the ingestion of these creatures can cause an upset in my own system. I am sure that that happens to many people. Some people are congenitally unable to take these fish in any form. I am sorry that they are robbed of a great delicacy, but I am trying to stress, in favour of the consumption of shrimps—which means that it will endear itself to the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale—that if these fish were prepared more cleanly people would not have the same dread of consuming them. I make the fair claim that we can say that they are not 100 per cent. clean. They may be 100 per cent. clean in Morecambe, but we do not know the position elsewhere. If they were 100 per cent. clean, people would not have the same dread of consuming them that they presently have. In other words, if they were framed more firmly than at present these Regulations could help the industry.

Photo of Dr Dickson Mabon Dr Dickson Mabon , Greenock

We are all reasonable men and we want to try to see the reasonable side to all these things.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham All Saints

Is my hon. Friend agreeing that the preparation of such food in people's houses under any circumstances ought to be a practice which should continue in this country? I ask him to address himself to that question. To suggest for a moment that the preparation of such food in people's houses is satisfactory is a very serious matter. I am sorry that he, as a medical man, is prepared to countenance it, and I should like to hear his comments on the point.

Photo of Dr Dickson Mabon Dr Dickson Mabon , Greenock

This is where my reasonableness is being treacherous to me. I am trying to put myself in the position of the Parliamentary Secretary. Possibly it is a false position to assume; in other words, the Parliamentary Secretary, we assume, is a conscientious person anxious to discharge his duties as a junior Minister. It therefore follows that if there is a case for these Regulations and for the continued preparation of these foods in outhouses, clearly it must have the unqualified support of the Food Hygiene Advisory Council and obviously must have had the Minister's earnest consideration. I am saying—and I want my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. D. Howell) to try to come with me in this matter—that the Parliamentary Secretary obviously must have an extremely good case to enable him to bring forward these Regulations.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham All Saints

That is as it may be, but I hope that my hon. Friend is not taking this to the extreme, because to suggest that there are any reasonable Ministers at all in this Government is more than I can stomach.

Photo of Dr Dickson Mabon Dr Dickson Mabon , Greenock

Now we are straying into the realms of party controversy, which is anathema to hon. Members opposite, I am sure. I do not want the good point behind this Motion to be lost by a conflict of that kind. I am trying sincerely to put the point in the hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be helpful to us all—to the fishermen, to those who prepare the foods, and to the consumers. I am inclined, like my hon. Friend, to believe that there is no case that can justify these Regulations, but I am pointing out to the Minister that I am prepared to be persuaded otherwise if he has a good case.

We need only look back on the Report of the Food Hygiene Advisory Council to see that it had very strong, substantial and reasonable objections to the position that was used in the defence of the original Regulations in April, 1956. I am sure that the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale would be the first to agree that a very reasonable case was put up and, while he may be able to answer it, nevertheless the fears expressed were not groundless, nor were they bureaucratic. The Council was disposed to the public well-being, and that, after all, is what the Minister represents tonight. He represents the defence of the consumer against the possible mismanagement of the supplier.

As I have said, I have tried to make out an argument for the point that the food may be offensive in certain ways unless cleaned properly in these establishments; offensive, in that though it may carry with it innocent—in some contexts—organisms, with the shrimp they may actually become pathogenic. I have tried to argue that the preparation of at least one kind of shrimp, the potted shrimp, may actually add to the development of pathogenic organisms within the actual creature itself.

Let me pass to another point. This work is farmed out for reasons of the market, because catches vary, because the season lasts for only three months and so on: I appreciate all those arguments and I appreciate the difficulties of the position, but it has been argued that in these out-houses these good people are said actually to prepare these shrimps, and, at the same time, to look after their children. This seems to be highly undesirable.

Children, we all know, are delightful creatures, but, after all, they are not quite as well endowed in the defences of their little bodies against organisms as are adults. They are, therefore, susceptible to many attacks from organisms that we, as adults, repel. And little ones can pass these things on. We see it in the nurseries and the hospitals—outbreaks of gastroenteritis, which do not affect many of those in immediate attendance but spread like wildfire through the wards and nurseries. When these organisms are passed on, albeit innocently, by the mother engaged in cleaning these shrimps while trying to look after her children, those organisms can multiply and increase in their pathogenicity to such an extent that they become offensive to the public.

I do not try to make out the case that half the British Isles are being poisoned by potted shrimps, but we must remember that in the Food and Drugs Act we have tried very desperately to raise the very low standards of hygiene that persist in Britain, and even on a very small front like this it is important that we should exercise all vigilance. We must see that the Act is not robbed of its effect by Regulations that are not sound and sensible, and which do not conform with the spirit of the Act. After all, it is an Act that was welcomed by both sides—

Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Reading

In making this point about children being round and about while the work is being done, I wonder if my hon. Friend realises that he draws attention to only one of two dangers? He draws attention to the danger that children may be affected by some impurity in the food processing. There is another side. Children, as my hon. Friend has said, are delightful creatures—I have had some—but they are also creatures who tend to get grubby in the course of play.

I find it difficult to think that a mother working on the processing can always be sure that the toddler who comes in from the back garden and leans against her apron because it wants something, has not been in contact with something in the back garden that it may be very undesirable to have in the presence of food being processed. That seems to me to be a greater danger arising from the presence of children where this work is being done than that to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

Photo of Dr Dickson Mabon Dr Dickson Mabon , Greenock

My hon. Friend has robbed me of my second last point, but he put it much better than I could have attempted to do it. He has put a good case for asking the Parliamentary Secretary why no reference to this is contained in the Regulations. Or is it that the Minister feels that this is not a danger at all? I think there is a good reason—we see it in the Explanatory Note—for itemising all the conditions that ought to be observed. We all welcome that. But there is no reference to this question of children.

I think that it is highly undesirable that we should have the attention of people engaged in processing these shellfish divided between looking after children and looking after their work. That is all wrong. There should be a condition that the processing is given the undivided attention of the processor, and not carried on in the company either of children or of other adults not themselves involved in the processing arrangement. That is a point to which the Parliamentary Secretary must really turn his mind.

My last point relates to foreign imports. There really was a very fair case put during the last Adjournment debate on this subject, that it was unfair competition to demand conditions from our own people that we were not prepared to demand in respect of foreign imports. That is a very reasonable point, and one that went unmentioned, and this is probably the only opportunity we have of asking the Parliamentary Secretary what the advice of the Food Hygiene Advisory Council is on this matter.

Is it the case, for example, that Dutch shrimps are prepared in less good or in better conditions than we prescribe? Are Dutch shrimps allowed to be processed in out-houses, as they are in parts of this island, and will they continue to be prepared in out-houses that are governed by the same kind of regulation in Holland? In other words, can we have a comparison with what is done in other countries? I believe that the consumption of Dutch shrimps in this country is not negligible. It is an appreciable factor in the discussion of the consumption of this particular food.

I should, therefore, like to hear the Parliamentary Secretary telling us specifically just what is done in relation to foreign competition of this kind. It might be argued that if foreign traders and suppliers are to prepare their shrimps in better conditions than we do at home, it might be advisable for the Ministry of Health, if it fails to do as we ask, to tell the people to eat the foreign shrimps rather than our own. That, I am sure, would be a dreadful consequence falling on the head of the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale. That, because he ensured that Regulations of this kind passed, we had, as a consequence, to advise our people not to eat our own shrimps, would be a disastrous consequence. I hope, for the sake of Morecambe, Fleetwood and other places supplying these shrimps that that will not result.

While the Parliamentary Secretary may smile, it is a fair point—and it may be taken the other way. It may be that these foreign traders and suppliers do not conform to our standards but will use this argument of the out-houses that we allow to say that we have not the right to criticise them or to discriminate against them in the importing of these particular foods.

I put it to the Parliamentary Secretary that, while I have not put this case as well as I might, in seconding the Motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey)—

Photo of Mr Frederick Willey Mr Frederick Willey , Sunderland North

I have heard of people expressing a preference for Irish shrimps. Does he know whether this has anything to do with the way in which they are prepared? It has been my experience that people have expressly asked for Irish shrimps.

Photo of Dr Dickson Mabon Dr Dickson Mabon , Greenock

I am afraid I am not a complete authority, or even a very well-informed authority, on the shrimp trade, so I do not know whether that is the case. Since my hon. Friend has raised the matter, perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary might now tell us the methods of processing of Irish shrimps as well, and the conditions that these countries lay down for the processing of these shell fish.

If I have inadequately supported the case presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North, I have, nevertheless, tried to stress points which I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will be gracious enough to answer. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North, I should not like to have to support this Motion by going into the Division Lobby simply because the Parliamentary Secretary had not given us an adequate reply. There must be a reasonable case from the point of view of the Minister. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be fair, as I have tried to and that he will not insist on these Regulations. If he thinks that we have been fair-minded in presenting this case, I hope that he will postpone their operation for the time being so that he can re-examine the Regulations and present them in a more acceptable form.

8.2 p.m.

Photo of Sir Ian Fraser Sir Ian Fraser , Morecambe and Lonsdale

I would like to express the thanks of the House, and certainly those of my constituents, to the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) and to the hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) for the reasonable way in which they have brought this matter to the notice of the House. If the doctor will allow me to say so, I thought his broadcast last Saturday on "The Week in Westminister" was better informed and more convincing than his food talk this evening. I was greatly impressed with it, if he will forgive me for saying that about his broadcast.

The picture that the hon. Member for Greenock has drawn of many people being poisoned or half-poisoned by ingesting substances from these creatures was dreadful, but he was making a great fuss about very little. I wonder how many people would agree with me that the time can come when, if we eat nothing but pasteurised food or food that comes out of a can and has been cooked until all the goodness has gone out of it, we may very well lose such immunity as God provides us with when we eat natural food. Civilised people can fall into danger when they go too far in depriving themselves by innoculation of the natural bacteria, germs, spores, fungi and other minute creatures which produce the very immunity which prevents us from dying of these effects. We can go too far in these matters.

What are the outhouses which have been mentioned? They are the ordinary homes of my constituents and not special, horrible places where dirty tricks are played. The hon. Member for Greenock, or the hon. Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. D. Howell), who interrupted him, said that he would be opposed to all preparation in food in the home. Where do hon. Members expect the ordinary, average housewife to prepare her food if not in a home? Must homes he denied to future generations under Socialism? [Laughter.] Well, what does the hon. Member mean? Surely, millions of women prepare food in homes with children about them and grandmother sitting in the corner. It is a common practice in Britain, and if the hon. Member for Greenock lives mostly in hotels perhaps I might remind him of it.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham All Saints

I am very well aware that the best meals are those which are prepared in homes. The point I was making was that there is all the difference in the world between eating a meal prepared by a housewife for consumption immediately in the home and a meal which is prepared in a home without proper safeguards, and which is to be preserved for a considerable time and eventually sold in shops, as is the case with some food covered by the Regulations, not necessarily shrimps.

Photo of Sir Ian Fraser Sir Ian Fraser , Morecambe and Lonsdale

No one but a fool would expect shrimps to be eaten months later unless they had been kept in deep-freeze. We do not eat kippers months later. Housewives are not such fools. Everybody knows that we cannot keep shrimps for months, any more than kippers.

Photo of Sir Ian Fraser Sir Ian Fraser , Morecambe and Lonsdale

I am not the hon. Member for Onions, so I cannot say. Morecambe shrimps are so excellent that they hardly need advertising.

Let me take up the point which I was making about poisoning. I regret to inform the House—I hope that hon. Members will not object to this personal revelation—that only two nights ago my wife and I ate half a dozen oysters which we bought in one of the most expensive shops in the West End. I suffered no ill effects, but my wife was extremely ill after a couple of hours. She did not inform the local authority or call in the doctor. She was sick and she felt very much better two or three hours later. We make too much fuss about these things. Food poisoning occurs in the best regulated families.

I challenge anyone to produce for me a case of shrimp poisoning. It is not enough to say that there were 3,850 cases of poisoning; there are many unknown sources. There must be all sorts of unknown sources of poisoning, but we cannot hang a man by proving that somebody else did it. Nor can we accuse shrimps because there are other sources of poisoning, or because there are allergies. There are allergies to all kinds of things. Personally, I am very allergic to the Daily Herald.

Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Reading

Does it bring the hon. Gentleman out in spots?

Photo of Sir Ian Fraser Sir Ian Fraser , Morecambe and Lonsdale

I can take it only in small doses.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham All Saints

Perhaps the hon. Member is interested only in "Templegate"?

Photo of Sir Ian Fraser Sir Ian Fraser , Morecambe and Lonsdale

I gave that as an illustration of the medical story which I am trying to get the hon. Member for Greenock to understand. The idea of food poisoning is very much exaggerated. The hon. Member said that there had been thousands more cases this year than a year ago. Perhaps that is because there are so many more clerks in local authority offices, or so many more doctors paid by the State, to record these cases. I do not make as much of it as do hon. Members opposite. Our mothers dealt with ordinary food poisoning by doses of castor oil and we were O.K. next morning. A lot of nonsense is talked about this subject.

The hon. Member for Sunderland, North made the case very well for my constituents and was kind enough to say that I had made the matter clear to the House on an earlier occasion. It is not only a question of the seasonable Mature of the case, but of the fact that many old, retired people do this work in their own homes effectively, efficiently and cleanly. They would not go to a central factory to do it. Therefore, when we have these delightful shrimps to eat, this is an effective, economical and sensible way in which we can have them.

The previous Parliamentary Secretary and the present Parliamentary Secretary have been very successful in the compromise they have made between the extreme view that might be taken about all food, including this food, and the free-and-easy way of doing things to which we have been accustomed in the past.

Most shrimps are boiled; certainly those which go through the bigger firms which send them to London, Lancashire, and all over the land are boiled. Nearly all potted shrimps, marketed in a big way and sold in Britain, are boiled. Although, as the hon. Member for Greenock will know, boiling does not kill every germ known to science, for all practical purposes boiling is a safeguard greater than, for example, pasteurisation, which is not boiling. If local people buy shrimps locally to be eaten locally, they have the sense to eat them right away. Someone going into a shop in London or, for instance, into the restaurant in this Palace and buying some shrimps may take it that they have been boiled. If, thereafter, the shrimps have been kept in a deep-freeze, they are all right.

I am able to tell the House—I hope it may influence hon. Gentlemen opposite and any others who may be doubtful—that the Morecambe Corporation and the representatives of the local shrimp fishermen, the Morecambe Trawlers' Co-operative, have come to an arrangement satisfactory to both which they feel they can carry out and meet satisfactorily the demands made by the Regulations. Before the end of the month, the authorities of Morecambe and Flookburgh—a village which is represented by Ulverston Rural District Council—the Ulverston Urban District Council, and Grange Urban District Council will be coming together to find a common way between themselves and agreeable to the representatives of the fishermen. I hope, therefore, that all parties will feel satisfied that the right and sensible thing has been done.

There is nothing in the Regulations to indicate any length of time during which they may last, but I feel almost certain that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will point out that the Ministry of Health will desire to review the matter in two years' time. I regret that; I do not think that it needs reviewing either now or in two years' time.

Photo of Sir Ian Fraser Sir Ian Fraser , Morecambe and Lonsdale

I do not think so; in my view, we are fussing too much about a little thing. I said so before, and I repeat it.

Since I do not wish to speak after my hon. Friend, I want to make the point now that all these fishermen, who have been good enough, to a certain extent, to let me work for them here and take my advice, are to meet, through their representatives, the representatives of all the local authorities concerned. They will carry out the Regulations, and I hope very much that, in two years' time, whether we have this Government, its successor, or a Government of another kind in power, there will be no cause, even if there be an inquiry into this matter, for altering the Regulations, which seem to be reasonable and meet all sides of the case.

I thank the Parliamentary Secretary of the previous Government and my hon. Friend now on the Front Bench for the courtesy and good sense that they have shown in the way they have brought these Regulations to the House. I hope that the Regulations will receive the unanimous blessing and good will of all hon. Members, so that they may be made to work for the advantage of all.

8.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Arthur Blenkinsop Mr Arthur Blenkinsop , Newcastle upon Tyne East

We welcome very much the presence in the House of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health when we are debating a matter of this kind, because so often on questions relating to food hygiene we have to regret either his or his Minister's absence. In this case, to make the interest of his Ministry even more apparent, we notice that it is the Minister of Health who signs the Instrument, while the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, apparently, thinks it enough if he signs for his Ministry. That emphasises that the Ministry of Health is beginning, after a long lapse, to take a real interest in these matters.

We are very grateful for the information given by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser); we understand his knowledge and interest particularly in the shrimp trade. I have much sympathy for what he has said. I do not think anybody in the House wants to be pernickety in insisting upon precautions; one can go too far in that direction. In this country, however, it has been evident for many years that our fault has been the other way; we have lagged a long way behind other countries. This has been recognised, and there has been a great effort on all sides to improve standards and arouse public interest in food hygiene. We have, on the whole, been far too lax. It is not that we need to go round urging people to take food standards light-heartedly; on the contrary, we have been too light-hearted in the past.

One can, of course, point to a number of relatively mild food poisoning outbreaks, but what has been a matter of concern has been that some of the food poisoning outbreaks in the recent past have not been mild at all but have developed quite seriously. The more investigations into the matter have been made by well-informed bodies such as the public health laboratories and so on, the more have those qualified to know become convinced that there is a very great need for public education in the matter. Although, as I say, I feel much sympathy with some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale, there is a danger that his remarks might be taken in the wrong way and regarded almost as an encouragement to be careless, when, in fact, that is not what we want.

I am interested in this subject because my own local authority has felt that it has inadequate power to regulate the sale of foods of different kinds, including foods of this nature, which are sold not from shops but from barrows, stalls, and the like. The Newcastle-upon-Tyne City Council and its health committee have been in correspondence with me. The authority feels that its powers are inadequate to control many of these movable premises, although the powers in relation to shops are greater.

Recognising the inadequacy of powers at the sale end, surely we ought to be all the more concerned to make sure that the provisions governing the preparation of the foods are just as good as we can make them. I know that in the north a great deal of this type of product is sold from stalls. It is all very well for the hon. Member to say that these foods ought to be eaten fresh, but we do not always have the chance to know how fresh they are. It is not always easy to tell. Certainly some time must elapse in many cases before some of these commodities are sold. There is real anxiety which cannot be passed off as a joke or as a matter of no consequence.

There is evidence that certain local authorities take the view that their powers of control are inadequate. It follows, therefore, that we ought to be more than ever satisfied about the position. My hon. Friends have made comments about the conditions in the places where the foods are prepared. The point, of course, concerns the preparation of foods for resale after a lapse of time between preparation and re-sale. We are not talking about the preparation of foods for cur own immediate or near-immediate consumption. Even then, many food poisoning cases arise in the home, very often from food—particularly meat and some-times fish that has been left over and re-heated after being left for a while. The danger arises in the lapse of time between the preparation of the foods and re-sale.

As I say, we are glad to see the Parliamentary Secretary with us. When he replies to the debate. I hope he will deal with that point. If he is able to give hope to my my own authority, we shall be very grateful. I know that in an Answer to a Question of mine the other day he said that there were some other authorities that have raised the same point, so Newcastle is not alone. If he can answer our questions, we shall be most grateful. If he feels that he could look at this difficulty without taking part in our debates on other food hygiene issues—merely taking a seat with the general public, as it were, in some of our Committee proceedings on a related measure of food hygiene where his presence would be received with pleasure by hon. Members on both sides—we should be grateful. If the Parliamentary Secretaries could arrange this between them between now and tomorrow morning we should all be very grateful.

8.24 p.m.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham All Saints

I feel that my hon. Friends have been much too reasonable about the Government. I do not intend to mince words at all. I think that these Regulations are a complete capitulation to vested interests and to the pressure of vested interests. If we wanted further evidence of that, there is the remarkable speech of the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser) on behalf of the vested interests—which maybe legitimate in his constituency—and his immediate disappearance from the House after having made his speech without giving the opportunity to those who conclude the debate to be able to reply, point by point, to the statements that he made. Clearly, the hon. Member pressurised the Minister and the Government a few months ago into withdrawing what every health expert thought were reasonable Regulations and getting this extremely doubtful measure proposed as a part of Government policy. In dealing with the health of the nation this is a very calamitous state of affairs.

I do not want to deal with shrimps or prawns, two of the things affected by the Regulations, but mostly to concentrate upon pickled onions, which is the third food we are debating. I give no place to any hon. Member in my liking for a nice, pickled onion, especially in my home. The hazards of maintaining the onions in good order are obvious when we realise that, as far as I can recollect, we have never had them at all in any of the dining rooms of the House. Why, I do not know.

I have tried, in the last few days, to meet members of the onion trade who have been willing to talk to me and to discuss these matters. I find that a serious state of affairs is operating and will continue to operate under these Regulations. I find that not the least of the objections of reputable manufacturers is that their prices are being undercut by onions prepared by cheap labour in very unsatisfactory conditions. I ask the Minister how he squares that with the fact that the Minister of Labour employs a large number of factory inspectors, quite rightly, to visit factories where onions are prepared and who insist upon the most stringent tests and regulations being complied with which cannot be complied with in even the most satisfactory home in the constituency of the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale or any other hon. Member's constituency.

It is clear to me that we shall have two completely differing standards in the preparation of food under these Regulations, especially regarding pickled onions. One is an excellent standard in the factories where these onions are peeled and then preserved, and the other an entirely different standard in the homes of the Black Country and particularly London. Large quantities of onions are prepared in the Black Country and London, where, I am told, standards differ greatly.

One reputable manufacturer in the Midlands who deals with all makes of pickles, with, naturally, a lot of onions among them, tells me that in his factory it has been insisted that he must have all stainless steel tables, for example, for the peeling and preparation of the onions, that these steel tables have to be cleansed daily and that there is a rigorous inspection by factory inspectors. The packing of the onions has to be done under very vigilant conditions. The vinegar, for example, must be added by special glass tubes to minimise the risk of infection. These tubes have to be cleansed and the factory and local health inspectors must satisfy themselves that they are cleansed daily.

There is very strong medical supervision of people going into the factories, especially the younger people, to ensure that they are free from infection. It will be appreciated that every person under the age of 18 who goes into industry has to be medically examined. This presents an opportunity, especially in a food factory, to ensure that people who are taken on from school are hygienic in habit, that their health is good and that they pass the stringent tests of the Factory Inspectorate doctor.

None of these things, however, applies to the preparation of the same product in the private home. This is a serious matter. Not the least part of the seriousness is, as the firm with which I have been in touch quite properly pointed out, the fact that the maintenance of conditions of this kind in the factories is an expensive business. The factories are constantly being kept up to date by the factory inspectors, who, as far as one can gather from the Regulations, have no concern in the preparation of the same foods in the home.

I want to emphasise something that my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) said and on which he was taken up by one or two Members It is in the nature of things that these foods will be prepared in the home by people who cannot go out to work on a full-time basis. One can reasonably assume that these part-time people, with all respect to them, will not have the very best conditions operating in their own homes. There will be all the obvious dangers connected with the preparation of food in one's own home.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Mr. Mikardo) spoke of young children. One can easily understand the presence of young children, who may be helping their mother to do this sort of work in the peeling of onions and the like, and who need attention. A child may need to be cleaned. Napkins might need to be changed. What kind of instructions is the Parliamentary Secretary issuing to his local authority inspectors to ensure that health education of this importance is given concerning the preparation of food in private homes? This is an extremely important point. I know from my service on the Birmingham Health Committee what great importance the medical officer of health placed upon people washing their hands several times a day and having notices exhibited—certainly, where it was possible for the corporation to exert any influence—to this end.

We would all agree that where food is prepared, as in the case of onions which have to be bottled, kept and sold months later in the shops, we should have the most stringent guarantees from the Parliamentary Secretary before we agree to the Regulations. I am not at air happy about the hygienic problems that will arise from the Regulations in allowing, people to prepare this food in their own, homes, not only without spasmodic information from the Department's inspectors, but without any proper records being kept.

Photo of Mr Frederick Willey Mr Frederick Willey , Sunderland North

May I put a question to my hon. Friend? He will remember that I said I had a completely open mind on pickled onions. My hon. Friend is obviously enriched by a good deal of expertese on pickled onions. The Regulations apply to the pickling of onions. We have had an explanation concerning shrimps which, we can assume, applies also to prawns. As my hon. Friend has expressed a constituency interest in this matter, will he explain why onions should be pickled in people's homes? Why does this provision occur at all?

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham All Saints

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I have already touched on the fact. The simple answer, I think, is cheap labour. The less reputable manufacturers who want to sell pickled onions have to compete with well-known firms, who, I have no doubt, prepare their food in excellent conditions. Indeed, when it is prepared in factories the public have the necessary guarantee. I am told by these manufacturers that because food is concerned, the factory and health inspectors are very rigorous indeed in seeing that these high standards are maintained.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. The one way in which these small cheap-jacks—if I may use the term—can compete with the reputable firms is through the use of cheap labour, and they send the onions to the homes of people to get this work done. This happens particularly in the Black Country, not my constituency.

What happens? We can all imagine the mother who wants to earn a bit of extra money because of the difficulty of making ends meet, when she takes up this home work, getting as many members of the family round the kitchen table as she can to help her peel as many onions as possible. There is no guarantee under the Regulations that children under a certain age should be prevented from doing the work. There is no safeguard against that at all. Indeed, I think it would be quite legal for young children, who would not be permitted to do part-time work in any circumstances, to do this work in the sort of situation I have described. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us whether that is so or not.

I was about to turn to the question of diseases which, in a factory, are very vigorously dealt with. My informants tell me that, in their factory, when there is any sign of a skin disease the person showing it is immediately removed from any contact with the food. Indeed, in the factory of which I am thinking anyone who goes to work even with a plaster of any sort on the hand or face is immediately removed from the scene.

Even reputable firms have accidents. It happened within recent history that somebody bought a jar of pickles and found a finger plaster in the pickles. That produced a very serious situation indeed. That happened despite all the safeguards which the firm takes, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that the firm pacified the customer.

In work in the home there is nobody on the spot to insist upon all these precautions. If the mother or one of her helpers cuts a finger she puts some ointment or other preparation on it, or puts a plaster or a bandage on it. Hon. Members are smiling, but one can easily see that if somebody has on a fingerstall or a plaster, and if there is no supervision of any sort of the work, there is a danger that the stall or the plaster may fall into the pickles and contaminate the pickles and cause food poisoning.

Whatever the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale may say about food poisoning, the fact remains that there are thousands of cases of food poisoning every year. It is a serious matter. We all know how widely food poisoning may spread. The dangers here are self-evident.

The Regulations we are debating say that a local authority shall register the premises involved, and I have no doubt that the Parliamentary Secretary, when he replies, will tell us that this is an adequate safeguard. With right hon. and hon. Friends of mine I am sitting in his company and in the company of the Minister of Housing and Local Government twice a week, soon to be three times a week, discussing the Local Government Bill, the purpose of which, it is said, is to remove from local government the heavy hand of Whitehall and to give the local authorities complete autonomy. If the local authorities are to have complete autonomy, then, obviously, the guarantees which are set forth in the Explanatory Note to the Regulations do not hold very much water—or, perhaps I should say, very much vinegar.

Local authorities are certainly being urged to cut down their staffs and to economise. Conservatives throughout the length and breadth of the country are demanding it. What guarantees have we from the Minister that if the Regulations are approved Parliament can be assured on behalf of the consumer—because that is the vital interest—that local authority staffs are in every case adequate to continue to inspect the homes where this food is being prepared? We must insist upon an answer to that question. If we do not have a satisfactory answer, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) will take us into the Division Lobby. It is a very serious thing indeed that we do not protest every time the question of clean food is raised.

There is also no undertaking in the Regulations that we shall have a report of the findings of local authority inspectors. When a factory inspector visits reputable factories we can read his report, but where food is prepared in private homes removed from the control of the factory inspector we have no undertaking that a report will be available. The least that the Parliamentary Secretary can do is to give an assurance that the Annual Report of the Ministry's Medical Officer will keep us informed from year to year about how many inspections are made under the Regulations and exactly what results are found by the local authority inspectors.

Let us consider the Minister's requirements under the Regulations. First, it is suggested that there should be a periodic check by persons who give out the food that the workers are able to maintain proper standards. That is a rather weak requirement. Other hon. Members have much longer experience than I have, but I should like to know whether it has ever been suggested previously to Parliament, especially in matters of health, that the man with the vested interest, the man who wants work done cheaply, should also be the man to satisfy himself about the maintenance of proper standards. This is a very weak requirement. It certainly does not satisfy me. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will deal substantially with that point. How can Parliament and the public be satisfied that the maintenance of proper Standards can be safely left in the hands of the very people who have a vested interest in getting as much as possible of this food prepared as cheaply as possible?

The second requirement is that of the cleanliness of equipment and premises. That is a satisfactory requirement which I fully support, but I reiterate the point which I made earlier that we are entitled to know precisely what standards of cleanliness of equipment and premises will be insisted upon. This is a serious factor. Those of us who have been members of health committees, and who have interviewed people who prepare food in cafes and restaurants, know how many unsatisfactory premises exist for the preparation of food for the public.

We know how the people who are responsible for some of these premises have to be brought before the health committee in the last resort after a series of warning letters have been issued to them. Indeed, in certain cases it has been necessary to withdraw permission for these people to prepare food. It is an unfortunate fact—and I state it with considerable restraint—that all my experience goes to show that people who go in for the preparation of food have to be watched continually. Generally, they are not the sort of people who automatically ensure for themselves the best hygienic standards, and they have to be kept up to scratch.

Photo of Sir Archer Baldwin Sir Archer Baldwin , Leominster

Is the hon. Member suggesting that pickled onions should not be processed in a private home without being subject to inspection?

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham All Saints

I am suggesting that the preparation in private homes of food for sale to the public should be entirely prohibited. However, the Government have capitulated on that principle and I suggest that the Regulations for its control are completely unsatisfactory. The hon. Member has an interest in food which is wider than that of pickled onions with which, no doubt, he spices the food he prepares on his farm. He would want to be sure that when his wife went into a shop she was able to get food adequately prepared in the most hygienic circumstances. The public at large should be entitled to the fullest possible guarantees on these matters.

The third standard to be laid down in these Regulations is the provision of a water supply and a wash-hand basin. That is the normal standard laid down in the Public Health Acts under which many restaurant and café proprietors operate. It is the experience of local authorities that this standard is inadequate. If it is a wash-hand basin specifically reserved for the person preparing the food, that is one thing, but if it is a wash-hand basin used for personal hygiene in the morning, for cleaning napkins in the afternoon and for cleaning onions in the evening, that is an entirely different thing. [Laughter.] Although my hon. Friends and I can derive some amusement from that, it is a serious matter if this one and only wash-hand basin is to be used for every possible household chore in addition to being used in the preparation of food for sale to the public.

Can the Parliamentary Secretary guarantee that the Regulations are intended to refer to a water supply and a wash-hand basin specifically reserved in the room where the food is being prepared for the use of people preparing the food? Those manufacturers who persuade people to peel and process onions in private homes ought to provide the essential amenities of water and a wash-hand basin which they would have to provide if the food was prepared in their factories. If manufacturers in factories are to be compelled to provide wash-hand basins, and health and hygiene education are to be spread, the cheap-jack manufacturers ought not to be allowed to get away with it merely because work for them is done in private homes.

The fourth requirement to which the Explanatory Note refers is the protection of food from risk of contamination. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can give us some details about this. How is food to be protected from risk of contamination? There are hundreds of ways in which food can become contaminated in a private home. Not one hon. Member can say that this is not possible. Indeed, the Government themselves recognise it. That is why they have this provision for ensuring that food is protected from the risk of contamination.

But what do they mean? I am not prepared to trust the Government with an airy-fairy generality of that sort. What do they mean by protecting food? What standards will be taken for the storage of onions? The most stringent standards must be demanded not only in regard to the storage of food in people's private homes, but, even more so, in relation to the transport of food between private homes and factories. When onions are taken to the homes they can be taken in anything, but after they have been peeled and cleaned their transport back to the factories is an entirely different matter.

Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Reading

Often in a scruffy old car.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham All Saints

Yes—and we are dealing with cheap-jacks; not reputable manufacturers. The cleanliness that we might get in people's homes—although it does not add up to much—could be completely vitiated by transport back to the factories in unsatisfactory vehicles. Will the Minister tell us whether these vehicles are also to be open to the most rigorous inspection?

The fifth requirement is: the observance of cleanly practices by persons engaged in the handling of the food and the action to be taken where they suffer from, or are the carriers of, certain infections. This is a wonderful requirement. It can mean anything at all. No doubt it will be made to mean anything at all. Before we approve the Regulations we should be given some detailed information on this point.

I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale has now returned to the Chamber. He thought that it was fiddling, and a lot of nonsense, to talk about safeguarding food in the home from pollution, even though it be accidental. He must contend with requirement (e) in the Explanatory Note. The Government themselves are saying that there must be adequate assurances that carriers of infection are not employed. If, in practice, every person involved in this part-time work is to be medically examined to see whether or not he is a carrier of infection the points that I have been making will be largely met, but I have every reason to believe that that is not the Government's intention. This is a very nice, high-sounding, hygienic footnote to add to obnoxious Regulations, but I do not think that it will be carried into effect.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary specifically what steps are being taken to ensure that requirement (e) will be effective in its operation. Can he satisfy Parliament, on behalf of the housewives and consumers, that the carriers of certain infections, or sufferers from those infections, will not be engaged in this work? If the Minister says that the only way in which the provisions can be properly implemented is by a rigid interpretation of the provisions of the Explanatory Note, and that we shall have proper transport arrangements; adequate supervision by local authority inspectors; separate wash-hand basins for the use of those engaged in the preparation of food, and a proper medical inspection of all persons thus employed, I would say that the cost of all that would far outweigh the usefulness of the exercise.

What are we doing here at this time of night debating these matters, when the original intention of the Government, before they were "press ganged" by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale, and one or two other back-bench supporters into withdrawing from it, was to maintain a perfectly reasonable position? The Government know that they have given way to pressure from backbench Members and they are trying to safeguard themselves in this Explanatory Note by a method which most of us know could never be properly carried out. Unless we have an adequate and detailed explanation from the Parliamentary Secretary, we shall find it necessary to press this matter to a Division even though the House be so sparsely attended as it is tonight.

8.56 p.m.

Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Reading

I had not intended intervening in this debate, particularly as I have an interest in another part of our proceedings later on. But I am induced to do so because I was horrified by some of the observations of the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale (Sir I. Fraser). I shall be brief, if only because I can claim no expert knowledge about the subject under discussion.

I am sure that the House is grateful to those hon. Gentlemen who, from their expert knowledge, have provided us with a great deal of information on subjects about which most of us knew nothing. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. D. Howell) for having told me much more about pickled onions than I knew before. I only wish that my hon. Friend had added to the debt into which he has put all hon. Members by telling us, out of his expert knowledge, how to get pickled onions out of a jar with an ordinary fork without possessing the ability of a contortionist and the luck of a football winner.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham All Saints

My hon. Friend will realise that that is part of the "gimmick" of the trade. The more difficult it is to extract the pickled onions from the jar, the more people go on trying to do it. That is a very elementary process of psychology.

Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Reading

That adds even further to my knowledge.

To be serious, I wish to stress the importance of three points made by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale, as always, with that charming, friendly phraseology and with a honeyed, disarming manner with which he so often discusses a lot of arrant nonsense which is sometimes even dangerous nonsense. I understood him to say—I hope I am not doing him an injustice—that, by and large, it was a good thing now and again if we ate a little bit of poisoned food. That would build up a resistance within us. If we did not do that, the hon. Member said, if we ate only hygienic food, we should get into a bad state—

Photo of Mr Robert Mathew Mr Robert Mathew , Honiton

Mr. Robert Mathew (Honiton) indicated dissent.

Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Reading

Although his hon. Friend denies it, the hon. Gentleman is good enough to admit it.

Photo of Sir Ian Fraser Sir Ian Fraser , Morecambe and Lonsdale

Shall we say that I almost said it? I was referring to bacteria. I do not think that it is a bad thing for us to eat a bit of dirt—good old dirt—but I was talking about bacteria.

Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Reading

The two hon. Gentlemen must sort it out between themselves. But even if we accept what the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale has said, that it does us good to eat a little dirt, the difficulty is, who is to decide what is a little dirt?

This is where the danger arises. Once we let up on standards of food hygiene it is extremely difficult to draw the line. The danger is not that we shall be too rigid, but that we shall not be rigid enough. Despite all the food hygiene regulations which exist there is still sometimes too much laxity. The proof of the pudding being in the eating, we know that many cases of food poisoning each year are notified and I am sure that there is a much larger number which are never notified. Therefore, it seems that we ought not consciously to permit any breach in this defence because, if we took the view of the hon. Member and permitted a little breach, we should have no safeguard at all.

The second amazing pronouncement the hon. Member made was that since it is all right to use homes for the preparation by the housewife of food for herself and her family to be consumed immediately, or after a reasonably short time, ipso facto it is all right for a housewife to use the same premises for several hours a day to process food which may not be consumed in some cases for a considerable time.

I believe that the real problem is one which I ventured to touch on in an interjection, the problem of children. If a woman is taking in work to do at home to earn a bit of extra money, and is under the obligation of looking after a small child at the same time, I do not believe that she can keep her kitchen all the time as free from dirt, brought in in some form or another by the child, as she would like. It is one thing to maintain certain standards for a short time, but quite a different thing to maintain them for several hours a day.

The child may be kept out of the kitchen and from running in with a cut finger or a grazed knee or with a lot of dirt under its finger nails whilst one is finishing dinner, but in this case a woman will be sitting at the table for several hours a day and would not neglect her child by leaving it for several hours. I defy the best and cleanest of housewives simultaneously to work in their kitchens and look after their children and see that everything is absolutely of the highest standards of cleanliness that the Regulations demand, or ought to demand.

There is also the point to which my hon. Friend the Member for All Saints referred. A woman may be doing work at home when "Lizzie" comes in from school and plays for a time before doing her homework. The mother says, "There is this pail to finish; they are coming for it first thing in the morning. Lend me a hand." Then there is a tendency for child work to be done and children—delightful creatures as they are—do not always manage to stay as clean as they should. Perhaps they would not be so delightful if they did. I do not believe that the sort of protection local authorities can provide will be anything like sufficient to safeguard against the dangers inherent in that sort of practice.

Lastly, a point which was made by the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lonsdale made me raise my eyebrows. He was saying he thought we ought not to review these Regulations to see how they have been working. I thought that that indicated that he did not really believe they were all right and would stand examination. If he really believes that, in practice, these Regulations would prove as satisfactory as those they supplant he would be more than pleased because it would be a vindication of his position if, at some time in the future, there was a review of what had taken place under them. Is he really saying that we should institute a new arrangement and do not want to look at it to see how it has worked in case it has gone wrong and will have to be given up?

Photo of Sir Ian Fraser Sir Ian Fraser , Morecambe and Lonsdale

A letter has gone out from the Minister saying that the Ministry of Health desires to review the matter in two years time. I do not object to that. Let the Ministry review it and inspect the records of inspecting officers and local authorities. They will not find the position as bad as hon. Members are making it out to be. They will find it is a very reasonable, decent, clean trade.

What I do not want to assume is that in a certain time these people, who have now been reprieved from the ending of their livelihood for a year and are to be reprieved for two years, are necessarily to be told at the end of the two years that their number is up. That is why I do not want it to be assumed that these Regulations are to continue only for two years. I would rather they went on for ever, subject to proper examination.

Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Reading

That is very different from what the hon. Member said in his speech and I am grateful and flattered if any weak words of mine can change his mind so rapidly. He still has not made a case, because if the procedure turns out to be all right there can be no question of it being changed. It will be changed only if on examination it is found to be wrong. What the hon. Member says is, "I am looking after the producer and to blazes with the consumer. I want the producer to have the safeguard of being able to do this and to make his money in this way irrespective of whether his doing it causes an adverse effect on the consumer." That is a remarkable proposition for any hon. Member to make.

I recall that the last time I was in the United States there had been a great scare, and the authorities had had to take drastic action, because there had been a large amount of infection carried by canned salted peanuts. It was found, on examination, that these were consignments which had been packed by out-workers in their homes. It was also found that in the great majority of the cases the packers themselves did not suffer from the disease which the consignments carried.

This is a very dangerous situation in which we have a person apparently completely healthy, with no sign of suffering from an infectious disease, and continuing for years in that way, and yet capable of transmitting a disease to other people through food which he or she handles.

I suppose that there is no 100 per cent. safeguard against that. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend the Member for All Saints has described food processes in factories with rigid standards and with a rigid inspection of and report on the standards by the factory inspectorate, and I am sure that in such circumstances the danger is substantially lessened even if it cannot be removed altogether.

We must not take this question lightly, and I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us that he is not taking it lightly. I am sorry that the Regulations have been introduced, because I think that they make a concession to producers without any great necessity for it and that their only effect will be to increase the producers' profits at the expense of creating some danger for members of the community. If the Regulations are to be introduced, I beg the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us that their operation will be watched consistently, not merely looked at in two years' time, and that his Department will not be unwilling, if it finds that some dangers have arisen, to admit that it was wrong and to seek to have these Regulations withdrawn.

9.9 p.m.

Photo of Mr Richard Thompson Mr Richard Thompson , Croydon South

We have had a considerable debate on this important subject. Some hon. Members may have thought that the humble shrimp and onion were not capable of providing such material for discussion, but they were wrong.

A point of principal concern which has been expressed from both sides of the House is whether the procedure embodied in these Regulations will be sufficient and adequate to take care of the all-important health aspect and to minimise or prevent any possible outbreaks of poisoning which may arise from a continuation of a practice which has been going on for many years. I will try to direct my argument to that point. I am talking about prawns and shrimps at the moment and, in reply to the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) I may say "for shrimps read prawns, and for prawns read shrimps", because the same arguments apply to both.

Outworking has been the custom for many years in the Lancashire shrimp and prawn fishing industry. When the fishermen cannot cope with the task of peeling in their own homes they give the shrimps out to be peeled by neighbours and relations before disposal for potting, or for sale as peeled shrimps in retail shops and stores. The onion-pickling industry has also come to rely on outworkers to get the onions peeled, but of that side I shall speak later.

I accept that the main objection to preparation by outworkers is that while the food is being prepared in the out-worker's premises, the trader is not able to exercise the continuous supervision of handling that he would be able to exercise if the work were done on his own premises or in his own factory. In addition, whilst local authorities may inspect from time to time, they, also, cannot exercise quite the same continuous supervision.

There is no reason why food cannot be prepared in domestic premises in just as clean a way as in a food factory, but the absence of supervision could permit of lower standards than people nowadays, rightly, expect when they are buying food. The peeling of the shrimps is mostly done in cottages in the fishing communities at Flookburgh, Cark, Fleetwood, Lytham and Southport. As the onion-pickling factories are mostly in towns, the outworkers may live in small dwellings or flats but, I agree, the suitability of the premises varies considerably.

The shrimps are boiled before they are peeled. The hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon), in an interesting contribution had a query on that, but I am assured that, while still in the boats, the shrimps are first boiled. Sometimes, in addition, they are scalded by pouring hot water from the kettle over them through a colander.

The effect on the shrimp industry of the prohibition contained in the original 1955 Regulation No. 7 was, of course, debated by this House on Wednesday, 18th April, 1956, and I refreshed my memory about what was said then as felt that it would be germane to what we are talking about today. I must say that what we are now saying does not, in my view, dissent from the view that my predecessor then took. On that occasion, my predecessor said that Ministers were considering whether any satisfactory alternative method could be applied which would enable the peeling to continue to be done by suitable out-workers under controlled conditions.

Investigation since then has made it quite plain that while a system of preparing food that relies on outworkers cannot ensure an entirely satisfactory supervision over the handling of the food, we think that the safeguards that are embodied in the present Regulations do as much as we can reasonably do at present. As this is a debate largely concerned with the question of the adequacy of the precautions which are now being introduced, I think that I should say a word about those.

The outworkers' premises must be registered with the local authority under Section 16 of the Food and Drugs Act, 1955, for the preparation of the food in question. This enables local authorities to refuse or cancel registration if certain hygiene standards about food handling, equipment, clean rooms and washing facilities are not complied with. We must expect that local authorities will play their part properly in this matter and that they will have in mind many of the considerations which hon. Members have raised about what might happen in certain houses where there are children.

Let me go into the provisions in a little more detail. Outworkers have to observe the ordinary provisions of Part III of the Food and Hygiene Regulations, 1955, applying to fond handlers in ordinary food businesses throughout the country. They must protect the food from the danger of contamination, observe cleanly practices, avoid the use of containers that might contaminate the food and notify the owner of the food business when they have become aware that they are suffering from various infections.

Secondly, and this is the point about equipment to which the hon. Gentleman referred, the outworkers must see that the articles or equipment with which the food comes into contact are kept clean and in a condition to avoid contamination and that containers are protected and kept free from contamination. Finally, the outworkers' premises must be kept clean and, subject to any certificate of exemption by the local authority—because there is that power—must have an adequate supply of hot and cold water and suitable and sufficient wash-hand basins, in a position conveniently accessible to the persons handling the food, together with soap brushes, towels and so forth.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham All Saints

Can the Parliamentary Secretary deal with my comments on these matters in the questions I asked him? Since he is now dealing with the supply of hot water, can he say whether it would be an adequate supply to have a kettle of boiling water in the house, or whether there has to be a water heater with a permanent supply of hot water available?

Photo of Mr Richard Thompson Mr Richard Thompson , Croydon South

The requirement is not for a water heater as such. In other words, water boiled in a kettle could be acceptable for these purposes. The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about the provision of vessels and whether a particular kind of basin should be fitted in the room where the peeling was going on. I am advised that that is not the case and that "reasonably accessible" must mean that a basin is handy although it is not actually, and need not be, in the same room.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham All Saints

I am sorry to interrupt the Parliamentary Secretary again, but this matter is important. What he is now saying is that the ordinary wash basins, used for everything in the house, can satisfy these Regulations. It is an alarming proposition that food can be prepared with the aid of a wash basin that is used for every domestic purpose in the house.

Photo of Mr Richard Thompson Mr Richard Thompson , Croydon South

The object of a wash basin is to enable the user to cleanse his hands and not the actual food that is being prepared. In any case the local authority will be able to consider whether the ordinary domestic provision in the outworkers' homes is sufficient to meet these requirements. If not, it will no doubt discuss the matter with the person concerned, and if necessary, refuse registration. The local authority will no doubt visit outworkers' premises from time to time to see that these provisions are being complied with.

Now let me say a word about the responsibilities of the persons who are actually giving out the food. Paragraphs (3) and (4) of the new Regulations place certain obligations on persons giving out food for peeling by outworkers. The intention is to place on them, as far as possible, the same responsibility for the conditions in which their food is handled as would apply if it were being handled by their own employees in their own premises. The hon. Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. D. Howell) seemed to think that this kind of responsibility ought not to be placed on the employer, that is to say, the man who hands out the food. Of course, all that is happening here is that his responsibility, which he would have if he were conducting this kind of operation in a factory, is being extended to outworkers also.

The owner of the food, of course, should not escape all responsibility for what happens to his food while it is in the outworkers' possession. The Regulation requires the trader to satisfy himself that the outworker is aware of the obligations which apply to him and is able to comply with them, and to notify the local authority of his intention to make an arrangement with the out-worker. He must periodically check, at least every three months, that his outworkers remain able to comply with the Regulations, and he must send lists of outworkers' premises actually in use every six months to the local authority to avoid unnecessary inspections.

I will say a word about the Food Hygiene Council, since it was mentioned by the hon. Member for Greenock. It is quite true that the Council expressed the view that it was probably difficult where the outworker system of food preparation is relied on for either the owners of the food or the local authority to achieve the desirable supervision of hygienic handling. The Council expressed some doubt about this.

My right hon. Friend accepts the desirability of replacing outworking as soon as possible by methods which will insure adequate supervision of peeling. That is accepted. My right hon. Friend concluded that it would not be practicable, however, to change the arrangements in the two industries in the immediate future without very severe dislocation, and that outworking must continue for the present. I think that we should remember that to allow the original Regulations to remain in force would take away the livelihood of these people, a thing we are not usually very keen in this House to do. I think that the proposals we have now made, enabling the work to be carried on but introducing a necessary and desirable degree of supervision, will have the effect of preventing the kind of abuses which hon. Gentlemen referred to in the course of the debate.

Photo of Sir Ian Fraser Sir Ian Fraser , Morecambe and Lonsdale

I thought I heard my hon. Friend say that his right hon. Friend, meaning the Minister, had accepted the view that outworking must be brought to an end. Did he say that? [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes".] If his right hon. Friend has accepted that, I am hound to say that I could not possibly accept it, and I should have to test the feeling of the House in two years' time, or ten years' time, whenever it may be, upon the matter.

Photo of Mr Richard Thompson Mr Richard Thompson , Croydon South

What I was endeavouring to make clear was that my right hon. Friend accepts that outworking as a practice is far from ideal. [HON. MEMBERS: No."] On the other hand, he equally does not consider that it can be brought to an end now. Therefore, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, there is provision for the matter to be kept under review and for us to see, in two years' time, how the present Regulations are working and whether anything further is then required.

The industries have been urged to find ways in the meantime, during this time when we are, so to speak, seeing how we are getting along with the new arrangements, for arranging for peeling to take place under their own supervision. In the shrimp industry, which is made up of small-scale units where there are wide variations in the size and times of landings, one way which has been suggested is that it might be possible for fishermen or wholesalers to arrange for their pickers to do the work in rooms or sheds conveniently situated near the pickers' own homes, where the peeling could be directly supervised by the owners of the food. The essential point is that the person giving out the food, or his employee, should have full and continuous responsibility and supervision over the conduct of the process and the conditions in which it is carried out.

The pickle industry, about which the hon. Member for All Saints had a good deal to say, is organised on a larger scale, and the peeling would probably be spread more evenly over the year. The solution may lie in finding ways of enabling the peeling to be done in the factories where the subsequent processes take place. It may be asked, what is the objection to that being done now? I am informed that the firms find it difficult to recruit people to do this rather unattractive kind of work on a factory basis. Therefore, they depend willy-nilly on people who are prepared to do it at home, because their home conditions do not permit them to undertake more attractive work.

Photo of Dr Dickson Mabon Dr Dickson Mabon , Greenock

Can the Parliamentary Secretary substantiate that remark by giving reasonable evidence for it?

Photo of Mr Richard Thompson Mr Richard Thompson , Croydon South

It is a perfectly true statement. I have had it from firms in the business that they are unable to recruit the labour they wish to have for this kind of work. Therefore, they fall back on those who work at home.

Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Reading

Do they pay the right wages?

Photo of Mr Frederick Willey Mr Frederick Willey , Sunderland North

This is an important point. Can the Parliamentary Secretary say that he is reinforced in his view by the appropriate trade association? It is one thing to approach the particular firms concerned with outwork: it is another to approach the trade association. Can the hon. Gentleman say whether or not the trade association agrees with him?

Photo of Mr Richard Thompson Mr Richard Thompson , Croydon South

Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

May I say something about a point mentioned by the hon. Member for All Saints in his great concern with what he properly regarded as the health aspect. That is what animates all of us here. He felt that very grave risks were inherent in the continual practice of outworking. Indeed, those who were devoting their arguments to shrimps rather than onions had the same fear. My advice is that there is no evidence to associate figures of food poisoning particularly with either shrimps or pickled onions. The onion in this respect is in a slightly different category from the shrimp.

Incidentally, the onions return to the factory in the manufacturer's own transport—to answer the hon. Member for All Saints. The usual drill is for the manufacturer to send his transport to collect them from the outworkers. They are then immersed in vinegar, a process which, to a great extent, has the effect of immobilising or negativing—I do not know whether those are the correct clinical terms—[HON. MEMBERS: "Sterilising."]—The word "sterilising" has other connotations, which I should not be drawn into; I am assured that the process is one which makes the finished product less liable—in fact, hardly liable at all—to be a means of spreading disease.

Photo of Sir Archer Baldwin Sir Archer Baldwin , Leominster

Does the Parliamentary Secretary know of a case in which food poisoning has resulted from pickled onions?

Photo of Mr Richard Thompson Mr Richard Thompson , Croydon South

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that not one case has come to my knowledge. I am always cautious in these matters; and I would not say that no citizen has been poisoned by a pickled onion.

Photo of Mr Ian Mikardo Mr Ian Mikardo , Reading

That is the saying of the week.

Photo of Mr Richard Thompson Mr Richard Thompson , Croydon South

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for drawing it to the attention of those who collect those sayings.

We accept without reservation the need for proper standards of food hygiene. We are not going back on that in any way. These Regulations, which have been somewhat criticised, impose a higher standard than is requisite or called for now. We have laid them because we have found so far no completely satisfactory alternative to outworking which would not involve damage to the industry and the loss of livelihood of those in it. We believe that the arrangements outlined in them should be given a fair trial. While that is being done, we shall not abate our efforts to see whether a better solution can be worked out.

Photo of Mr Arthur Blenkinsop Mr Arthur Blenkinsop , Newcastle upon Tyne East

As, I believe, the hon. Gentleman is coming to the end of his speech, may I ask him to say a word about my point concerning representations from Newcastle and the effect of these proposals in that regard?

Photo of Mr Richard Thompson Mr Richard Thompson , Croydon South

I am obliged to the hon. Member for jogging my memory. It is true that Newcastle has asked for wide powers to license stalls, barrow boys, and so on. My Ministry is willing to see representatives of Newcastle on this subject should that be desired. I regard that as the appropriate method to press that claim.

I have outlined what I consider to be a reasoned justification of these proposals, which tighten up the existing position without putting people out of their livelihood and leave the door open for further review in the light of information which we shall receive as the Regulations are applied. I hope that in view of what have said tonight, the hon. Member for Sunderland, North, who moved the Motion in so admirable a manner, will feel that on reflection it is unnecessary to press it further.

Photo of Mr Frederick Willey Mr Frederick Willey , Sunderland North

The Parliamentary Secretary has replied in an engaging and pleasant manner. It is with very much regret, therefore, that I say that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. D. Howell) has persuaded me that we ought to divide against the Regulations. He has made a case concerning pickled onions which has not been answered. The Parliamentary Secretary has confirmed my anxiety about that part of the Regulations.

Having said that, I am in two difficulties. One is that we cannot amend the Regulations. I concede that concerning shrimps and prawns, the case has been made that the trade is seasonal. It is localised and, obviously, time would be required to provide provisions. If, therefore, we took the Prayer to a Division, we should unfortunately be exercising a judgment which, I think, would be wrong. I am satisfied that in the shrimp and prawn section of the Regulations, a case has been made, subject to review within two years, as the Parliamentary Secretary has said.

I am not satisfied about pickled onions. I mentioned the trade association, but I am sure that if that association had made strong representations we should have heard about them during the debate. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary, therefore, to assure us that there will be an urgent review of this matter. We are not satisfied, but we are in procedural difficulties on the Prayer. That is why I am making it quite clear that we are not satisfied about the pickled onion industry. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can assure us that he regards it as being in a different category from shrimps and prawns.

Photo of Mr Richard Thompson Mr Richard Thompson , Croydon South

Perhaps I may help the hon. Member in his difficulty. Shrimps, prawns and onions have always been bracketed together as exceptions to the original Regulation 7. They are rather odd bedfellows, I agree, but it does not seem to me to be entirely necesesary that they always should be It might be that when these questions are reviewed and we look into the workings of the Regulations, there would be an argument for splitting them.

Photo of Mr Frederick Willey Mr Frederick Willey , Sunderland North

I am greatly obliged to the Parliamentary Secretary, who has helped us in the difficulty in which we find ourselves. With that very firm assurance that these three industries will not be regarded together, and that the case of the pickled onions will be treated separately, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.