Microwave Ovens

– in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 6th December 1989.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:30 pm, 6th December 1989

(by private notice): To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he would make a statement on the list of models of microwave ovens which failed to reach the required safety standards in tests undertaken recently by his Department; and what proposals he has to inform the 8 million owners of microwave ovens of the details.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

Last summer I was informed of the results of tests on five microwave ovens carried out by my Department. These indicated that some ovens, when operated in accordance with the manufacturers' instructions, did not always perform sufficiently consistently to kill the bacteria in the food. I therefore announced a larger test programme to cover all the most popular brands.

The day before yesterday I received the first facsimile copy of the report on the programme, which covered 102 ovens and 70 different models. Two thirds of these performed satisfactorily, but the remainder gave rise to a range of different concerns. I provided copies of the report to the microwave working party, which includes representatives of consumers and manufacturers, published it in the afternoon of the day I received it and placed, a copy in the Library of the House. At the same time, before there was any request from the Opposition or from any other quarter, I called in the manufacturers' representatives and insisted that they make available a list of the ovens tested, together with the advice and new instructions which would ensure that the ovens would perform properly.

I was pressed publicly to give a list of those ovens but I made it clear that such a list, without the detailed information and advice, would be of no use. I announced that the manufacturers would produce this information as rapidly as possible and, I hoped, before the weekend. The house will be pleased to know that the full list of every oven tested, together with these updated instructions is being published by the manufacturers this afternoon, that is, within two days of my receipt of the report.

Anyone who has a microwave oven will be able to check against the list and see what steps, if any, are needed to ensure that food is fully cooked. The manufacturers have also agreed to rush through updated instruction literature, where that is necessary, so that customers will be able to get the new instructions to keep with their machines.

The Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Electrical Appliances—AMDEA—has further agreed that all its members will ensure that new microwave ovens will meet the higher standards which the tests that my Ministry carried out have shown to be necessary. I promised all that on Monday.

As Minister with responsibility for food, my first responsibility is the protection of the health of the public. That is why I insisted upon this research. That is why I wanted the earliest possible results and the earliest possible publication. Today the House will recognise that we have been able to get the earliest possible advice to the public. By seeking co-operation and not confrontation, this whole programme has been completed faster and the public have been more fully informed. As a result, the information that I promised on Monday, a promise that I repeated on Tuesday, has been delivered on Wednesday.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. This is a matter of great interest to our constituents.

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I am glad that, at last, we have managed to drag the Minister to the Dispatch Box to make a statement—[Interruption.] I remind Conservative Members that the Minister had refused to make a statement to the House. He has now given us the information we requested only as a result of my private notice question.

I am pleased that the Minister has changed his mind since his broadcast this morning, when he gave a completely different answer. Why does he think it right that the manufacturers should publish the results of a Government study? Why do not the Government publish their own independent results? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the simple reason for the delay in persuading manufacturers to make an announcement was his agreement with them that, to save the Government money, the manufacturers would provide the models on the understanding that no results would be published about any models that failed?

Will the Minister make it clear—and it is his job, not that of the manufacturers—which models are safe and operative because it is vital that the firms survive and that the jobs of those working in the industry are maintained? Is it not time that the Minister began to speak up for the consumer, and not the manufacturer?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

It is a little difficult to understand how I have changed my mind when all that I have done is what I announced on Monday I would do. I had the manufacturers in my office at exactly the moment that I published the report and at exactly the time that the working party meeting ended. It had been sitting from 10.15 am on the day that I received the report, and the manufacturers, together with representatives of the consumer, were present at that meeting.

There is no question of any delay. Indeed, I congratulate my scientists on the speed with which they have moved. The report was published by the Government on Monday because it was a Government report. A statement on how the models should be used is being published by the manufacturers because it is their models that are involved and they are updating their information.

The hon. Gentleman's third question shows that he has come to understand that, by unnecessarily stirring up people's fears, jobs have again been endangered by the Labour party. It is precisely because I put the consumer first that the document has been published today. That is why I did not merely seek headlines, as the Opposition have done.

Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare

Would my right hon. Friend care to say a word about the role of the Consumers Association in this matter? I have looked up some recent reports. Is it not extraordinary that the consumer magazine "Which?" has at no time mentioned minimum temperatures in relation to microwave ovens? From its statement yesterday, it might be thought that the association was more interested in promoting itself than in the interests of consumers.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I think that the my hon. Friend should be rather careful about mentioning the Consumers Association on this occasion. It turns out that the one oven that proved so unsatisfactory that it had to be withdrawn was one of the "best buys" recommended by the association after its tests. I note that the association said: When you buy a microwave, choose one which comes out well in our tests for cooking and defrosting: we take evenness into account. I suspect that the association's concern in this instance has been motivated more by its history than by any desire to protect the consumer.

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen

I congratulate the Minister on his rapid climbdown. I heard him give a very different account on the one o'clock news yesterday; as always, he instinctively took the manufacturers' view, taking consumers into consideration only under pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark).

What provision do the Government intend to make for the repair of defective microwave ovens? Two million are now known to be defective in households up and down the country, and one third of cook-chill foods are contaminated with listeria. Microwave ovens are now posing a danger in every one of those homes.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I find it difficult to see how the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) can have forced me into doing something, given that I said what I was going to do before he had even heard about the problem. Let me tell the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) that, admirable though his hon. Friend is in many ways, he has not been at the forefront on this occasion.

As for the hon. Gentleman's second question, he plainly does not understand what has happened. The machines themselves are, in large measure, not defective at all; the problem is simply that the instructions do not tell housewives or other consumers how to use them properly. The hon. Gentleman ought to remember that, rather than 2 million ovens being defective, a number of ovens require updated instructions, and those instructions are being given out today. The hon. Gentleman should thank my staff for the unparalleled speed with which they have moved.

Dame Janet F'ookes:

As one who is not always a friend of the Minister of Agriculture, may I congratulate him on the speed with which he has worked? I hope that he will ignore the long-winded waffle that we have heard from Opposition Members. Can he recall a time when the Labour Government worked with such speed, or to such effect?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I thank my hon. Friend. In such circumstances it is necessary to make a choice: do we wish to serve the consumer's needs or not? Serving the consumer's needs in this case meant obtaining the co-operation of all involved, and as a result not a single oven that was on the list is not now covered by up-to-date instructions. That was very speedy action. Any hon. Member who wants to look at that list need only visit the Library of the House, where I hope that it has been placed by now.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Chair of Communications, Liberal Democrat Party

Nevertheless, surely the Minister accepts that the public will find it extraordinary that his first reaction was to go to the manufacturers for his information rather than to the consumers. Why did he reveal yesterday, in a written answer, that no tests on cooking from raw are being conducted, although it is well known that that process involves many bacterium problems in microwave ovens? Is it not high time that we had a Ministry of Food that put people first, rather than the manufacturers and the industry?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

The hon. Gentleman must have thought of that question before he heard the statement. What he has said is nonsense; it bears no relationship to the facts. The report that was made to me on Monday morning was given to representatives of consumers, manufacturers arid scientists at a meeting beginning at 10.15 and it was published in the afternoon. Immediately we received the details I was able to announce that the manufacturers had published them. I do not understand how much faster the hon. Gentleman feels that we could have moved. If he dislikes manufacturers generally and hates their products, he had better tell the people of Cornwall.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman , Billericay

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his eminently sensible approach to this latest attempt to drum up a hysterical outburst against a perfectly safe piece of equipment. I have owned and used microwave ovens for at least 20 years on a daily basis. I can assure my right hon. Friend that most people use microwave ovens for defrosting or warming food and that they are well aware that they simply need to stir the food while it is being cooked to ensure that it is heated through evenly.

There is a political dimension to this problem which my right hon. Friend has not mentioned. The Labour party has mounted an assault on the cook-chill industry for a long time and the London Food Commission has described cook-chill food as an assault on the food industry. By condemning the use of microwave ovens they are trying to discredit the cook-chill food industry.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I thank my hon. Friend, with whom I do not always agree, for her kind support. It is a pity that the Opposition and others did not listen to what I said on Monday. If they had, they would not be surprised by what we have delivered on Wednesday.

Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , The Wrekin

Will the Minister confirm that when he lost his temper on the "Today" programme this morning he had no intention whatsoever, as he repeatedly made clear, of publishing the list of defective microwave ovens but that a series of panic phone calls took place between his officials and representatives of the industry? May I, in a bipartisan spirit, ask him to join me in commending the person who made the breakthrough possible, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark)?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

The hon. Gentleman must look back to the statement that I made on Monday. I made it quite clear that a list, with instructions, would be published. The hon. Gentleman must tell the truth and not mislead the House. I repeated on Tuesday what I had said on Monday—that the list would be published—and I have repeated it again today. The Opposition thought that they were going to win a point today. They were rather disappointed when they found that they were entirely wrong.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Aitken Mr Jonathan Aitken , South Thanet

Will my right hon. Friend clarify whether we are discussing a food safety problem or a manufacturing problem? If we are discussing a manufacturing problem, of course it is correct to allow the manufacturers to publish the list of technical faults and what needs to be put right, but if we are discussing a food safety problem my right hon. Friend must understand that there will be some surprise that his Department is not taking the initiative by issuing a list of dangerous microwave ovens.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

My hon. Friend must see that there have been two publications. I published on Monday the report that had the results of all the tests that had been carried out. What is being published today by the manufacturers is the agreed changes in their recommendations for the operation of their machines—as my hon. Friend said, of the machines themselves. Those are their recommendations, based on our findings. The machines are, of course, those on which the manufacturers had carried out other tests. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that I had the responsibility of announcing and publishing the report. I also had the responsibility on Monday of insisting that the manufacturers produced the list and gave the details of the changes with which we had agreed that the machines would be made perfectly safe in use.

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. This is an extension of Question Time, and we must now move on.