Orders of the Day — Food Safety Bill [Lords]

– in the House of Commons at 4:38 pm on 8th March 1990.

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Order for Second Reading read.

[Relevant documents: The Sixth Report from the Social Services Committee, Session 1988–89, Food Poisoning: Listeria and Listeriosis ( House of Commons Paper No. 257, 1988–89), the Government's reply to that Report (Cm 848) and the First Report from the Social Services Committee, Session 1989–90, Food Poisoning: Listeria and Listeriosis; Follow-up ( House of Commons Paper No. 93).]

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 4:40 pm, 8th March 1990

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is a joint initiative between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of Health and the Scottish Office. It seeks to cover the entire food chain. There is no doubt that the safety of British food depends on covering the whole of the food chain, for the chain is only as safe as its weakest link.

We in Britain have safer food now than has been the case in the past. People are able to enjoy a wider variety of diet and they are living longer than ever. So in bringing forward a measure of this kind, we seek to build on the present law, to find ways of meeting the new problems that new techniques of food preservation and handling bring to us and to meet the requirements of the greater accuracy with which we can now discern the parts of food that may be contaminated by such things as listeria.

We now know much more about the composition of food and, because we are aware of the presence of substances about which we did not know previously, we cannot ignore them and we must find ways of meeting the much more stringent demands that the public rightly places on us. To do that, the first step must be to ensure better enforcement. Historically, enforcement in Britain has been through local authorities and I am convinced that there are major advantages in having a local enforcement service.

But there is still the problem that if there is only a local enforcement service, there can be a considerable difference between the way in which the law is enforced in various places. I recently attended a meeting of the Guild of Food Writers and heard a prominent restaurateur describe her experience. Before opening a restaurant, she was told to tile the kitchens in a certain way. After she had opened the restaurant, another representative of the same local authority told her to remove the tiles. Within a year, a further representative paid a visit and told her to replace them.

That sort of dislocation advice given in certain circumstances—even in the same place, let alone as between places—brings the food safety law into disrepute. So although enforcement should be through local authorities, a change is needed to even out the standards over the country as a whole.

We propose to do that through codes of practice by which we hope to bring local authorities' actions and mechanisms into greater conformity without removing the need for local action on local problems, which vary from one outlet to another. That will mean better enforcement, better codes of practice, better training for enforcement officers and, in some local authorities, more enforcement officers.

That will involve more expenditure by local authorities. The Secretary of State for the Environment has agreed that £30 million will be taken into account in next year's rate support grant settlement, enabling us to let local authorities have the necessary resources to do the job properly.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

What does that mean? Does it mean that £30 million will be coming from central Government to cover those costs, or will additional sums have to be raised through the community charge? If the latter, how much of that £30 million will have to be raised in that way?

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

The money will come from central Government, but, because of the block grant, it is not possible to direct that particular part of the money directly for spending in each local authority. Local authorities will have that extra resource, but they will have to use it and we will seek to make sure, by the codes of practice, that it is used. So the answer to my hon. Friend's question is that it will be an additional resource from central Government.

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

Yes, the £30 million will be taken into account from central Government provision by way of the RSG settlement.

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

I will give way to my hon. Friend shortly.

What I have described will be paralleled by providing tougher powers for enforcement officers. We must achieve a balance between having the required additional powers to enable local authorities properly to protect the public and avoiding the temptation of having all sorts of fiddling rules being enforced on ordinary business men who are trying to run a reasonable service in a cafe, restaurant or small shop outlet.

The balance between those two is important. The priority must be the safety of the public. We seek to ensure that safety in as unonerous a way as possible, for it would be wrong to encourage the view that every action and movement of people who are trying to provide a public service and earn a living should be monitored in a way which they would find oppressive and which would be counter-productive.

Photo of Mr Conal Gregory Mr Conal Gregory , City of York

My right hon. Friend is right to refer to the need for environmental health officers to have adequate powers to enforce the law. Has he had discussions recently with the Secretary of State for Education and Science about the inadequacy of environmental health places at polytechnics? If we could overcome that difficulty, the vacancies for environmental health officers in many parts of the country would be filled and the vital piece of legislation that we are considering would be properly enforced.

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

I have had discussions with the Secretary of State for Education and Science covering a range of matters, including not only the training of enforcement officers but, equally important, how best to ensure that the training of youngsters in the use of food in the home can adequately be provided within the schools system. All such matters are under review and I hope that that meets the concerns of my hon. Friend.

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

I will give way to the hon. Lady when I have given more details concerning enforcement officers.

Up to now we have been able to take from the shelf, technically speaking, only the product that has been proven to be dangerous, and no other product from the same batch. Happily, that has not caused real problems because in almost every case—as far as I know, in every case—the companies concerned have willingly removed from their shelves any product about which there has been concern.

But that might not always be the case. There may be circumstances in which a company would be unwilling voluntarily to do that. So I feel that I should have power, and give enforcement officers the ability, to insist on the removal of the whole of a batch from the shelves, and of goods that are ready to go on the shelves. There are a number of places in which we have not had those powers. While we have not needed them, because there has been voluntary compliance, we should have them lest such voluntary compliance is not forthcoming.

It is also important to have improvement and prohibition notices. The environmental health officer should be able to demand necessary improvements for the protection of the health of the public and, in severe cases, to say that where there is real danger to public health, a premises must cease trading.

We must, of course, protect individuals from the misuse of such powers. It is of little help to say that it will take us a week or two before we can stop somebody poisoning his customers. So we must have an emergency system, to be used only when utterly necessary. That will be part of the tougher powers that the Bill will provide for enforcement officers.

Photo of Ms Audrey Wise Ms Audrey Wise , Preston

May I take the right hon. Gentleman back to his reference to the £30 million and ask on what basis the Government arrived at that figure?

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

The hon. Lady is right to ask that question. It was a difficult matter. As she may know, environmental health officers are concerned with housing conditions, noise pollution and a whole range of other matters. So we had first to try to estimate the amount of time and resources necessary for the part of their work that is concerned with food safety. We had also to consider the wide discrepancies in the importance that different local authorities place on food safety and the amount of resources that they already devote to it. We then had to bring into account the money already allowed for.

After that process, and following consultation with various authorities and experts, we decided on the figure of £30 million, which was widely considered to be not unreasonable. I was pleased to discover that that decision had support from all sorts of sources and from bodies that do not normally support the Government. It seems to me that the figure is not far out and it is pretty widely felt that we have tried to meet the requirements. We intend the Bill to work effectively and it will enable us to involve some local authorities that do not use enough resources—even out of block grant resources—for this important job.

Then there is the question of emergency control orders. Suppose that there is a serious danger—the possibility that an outbreak may reach epidemic proportions. That is not necessarily as frightening as it sounds; it could mean circumstances in which a succession of people might be affected by contaminated food. In such circumstances, we need a simpler, clearer, more comprehensive form of emergency control orders, and that is provided in the Bill.

It is vital that we should continue and elaborate the conditions that apply to labelling and to misleading claims. The House knows that extensive work is already taking place in the European Community. We have asked the Food Advisory Committee to consider labelling generally. We also want to ensure that labels provide information that is necessary to protect health. When I deal with irradiation, I shall point to the important part that labelling must play.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

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

If it is about irradiation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will wait until I deal with it in my speech.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

It is about labelling. Why have the Government dragged their feet for a decade on the labelling of fat, sugar, salt and protein? Will there be measures to ensure that those items, which are crucial for health and diet, are listed on labels?

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

The Government have done nothing of the sort. We have spent a great deal of time trying to reach an agreement in Brussels—that agreement was finally concluded on 23 February—to ensure that there is comprehensive labelling. It is all very well for the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) to attack the Government, but he would be the first to complain if food manufacturing firms in his constituency had to label their products, when imported, competing, products were not labelled. The hon. Gentleman should aim his darts at the right target, and not attack the Government, who have taken the lead in trying to improve labelling and give the public more information.

Enormous changes are taking place in the scientific and technological world. We need to be able to deal with questions arising from genetic manipulation and with the emerging obligations of our membership of the European Community. If we are to do that, we need flexible regulation-making powers so that we can make changes as soon as they are necessary and so that we do not find ourselves lagging behind others. Contrary to the view of the hon. Member for Leyton, we have been in the forefront of food safety and we intend to remain there. The Bill will give us the opportunity.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Davyhulme

Before my right hon. Friend leaves that point, and in view of the great change that would be involved in lifting the ban on the sale of irradiated foodstuffs, will he consider amending the Bill to require at least an affirmative resolution of the House before irradiation can be permitted? At present, the Bill provides for the negative procedure to be used.

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

I am sure that my hon. Friend would like to hear what I have to say about irradiation. I do not agree with him about the enormity of the change; it merely puts us in line with a large number of major countries. Every piece of irradiated material will be clearly marked, and if my hon. Friend does not want to buy it, he need not. I do not see why we should be too concerned about irradiation. The question is clear, and I hope to deal with it clearly.

First, though, let me deal with the registration of individual companies. I am concerned that in some cases local authorities have been unable properly to protect the public's health because they have not known of the existence of some food outlets. That is a major problem. On the other hand, we must be careful to place only the necessary burdens on industry because otherwise it will not have the flexibility to provide what the customer wants. We need to strike a balance. We are therefore introducing a straightforward procedure whereby food businesses will give their local authorities a few key details on a standard form. They will not have to pay to register.

The register will assist enforcement authorities to assess their task and set their priorities, and under clause 27(2)(c) we have powers to make such registers open to the public. We hope that that will enable us to ensure that a person wishing to open, for example, a sandwich bar will give the authority notice at a reasonable time in advance of its opening—perhaps at the same time as making arrangements for building or planning permission. That will give local authorities the opportunity to take such action as they wish.

Where there is a need for an especially tight control, a licensing system can be used. We have already made it clear that this will apply to dairies and dairy farms, which have licensing-type controls at present, and to premises where the irradiation of food is to be carried out.

The Bill allows us properly to control the irradiation of those foods for which treatment could bring benefit to consumers. It does not, however, usher in irradiation; there is no question of that. That will be achieved by detailed regulations put out to public consultation and laid before Parliament. The regulations will ensure that food irradiation will be allowed only under strictly controlled conditions, which will include the labelling of food both in retail outlets and in restaurants to give the consumer genuine choice. We are already consulting on how that should be done.

Irradiation is a valuable adjunct to our armoury in the fight against food poisoning. It has been confirmed as safe by the World Health Organisation and numerous expert committees around the world. The House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities' report on the irradiation of foodstuffs says at paragraph 143: Irradiation could serve as a useful means of raising the margins of food safety by reducing the contamination of some food by certain organisms". If people do not want irradiated food, they need not buy it. I am not in the business of forcing or chasing people to buy irradiated food. But, if they want it, they ought not to be prevented from buying it because somebody decides that they ought not to. I want these decisions to be made by the consumers, not the Consumers Association. It is the right of the consumer to decide. Therefore, irradiated food must be properly labelled.

This advantage is already being enjoyed in more than 20 countries. Consumers in France, Belgium, Italy, the United States, Japan and the Netherlands are all able to make a choice, although in many of those countries it is not as clearly defined as we will make it. I believe that our consumers should be permitted the same opportunities. Irradiated food will be labelled and people will be able to choose. It is not for me, as the Minister, to choose; it is for them to do so.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education), Chair of Communications, Liberal Democrat Party

The Minister cited the World Health Organisation in his support, yet the European Parliament working documents say that the WHO expressly stated that the committee of experts had not considered the general safety aspects of the food irradiation process, nor had it claimed that food irradiation was safe or that it had no harmful effects on human health. And, of course, the British Medical Association board of science has objected to the food irradiation process.

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

WHO not only says that food irradiation is safe but is actually encouraging it; it says that it wants more of it. The hon. Gentleman belongs to a party which used to rejoice in the name "Liberal" and liberal means giving other people choices, not arrogantly asserting that one's own prejudice must be enforced by the law. I am sad that his party of all parties is not going round the country saying that we should give the consumer the choice.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Bonsor Sir Nicholas Bonsor , Upminster

I am certainly not against irradiated food, but I am concerned, as is my right hon. Friend, that people should know when they are eating it, because many people will have fears, whether they are justified or not. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend could explain what safeguards he will give so that people do not eat irradiated food in restaurants and public places, where they may not have an opportunity of seeing a label.

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

When we produce the regulations it will be necessary for shops and restaurants serving finished food, if I may put it like that, where the label will not be obvious, to state that they are using irradiated food, and the customer will therefore be able to decide. That seems to me to be not in any way unreasonable.

In a world in which more and more people are seeking to make decisions for themselves, it would be a great pity if we decided, in the very important area of food, to take away their right to decide, when it is perfectly safe for them to decide.

I think that it would be extremely difficult not to come to the conclusion that there is no danger to health. I shall certainly buy and eat irradiated food myself and so will my family. Those who do not want it need not buy it.

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen

I think that there is an enormous loophole here. How would this work in practice in, say, fish and chip shops, restaurants or dining rooms in the House of Commons? Does it mean that when I order chicken and chips I shall be given a choice of irradiated or non-irradiated chicken? There will not be labels on the food in a cafe; food cannot be advertised in the menu as irradiated or not irradiated. It is completely impracticable.

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

The hon. Gentleman will know, because the law will say that that information has to be made available in a satisfactory manner, and we shall quite properly be consulting the various bodies and people interested in the matter, including the hon. Gentleman, if he so wishes, on the best way of providing the public with a choice. It is difficult to understand how people can say that, because some people do not want irradiated food, nobody shall have it; because some people happen to be wholly opposed to the scientific evidence, everybody else must give way to them. It is the Jehovah's Witness approach to science—that no matter how preposterous a proposal everybody has to accept it because a small number of people take that particular view.

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

No, I cannot give way; I really must move on at this point.

Circumstances change as our knowledge improves. If we had taken the view that some people are taking now, milk would never have been pasteurised. Every argument we hear about irradiation was used against pasteurisation. Yet nowadays we mark only those products that are not pasteurised. I am suggesting that we should mark every product that is irradiated.

There are some areas where those who care most about food safety—and I am one of them—are very concerned that we should have irradiation. At the moment we make safe the herbs and spices that we use by a mechanism which is dangerous and which we have sought to ban but have not been able to ban because there is no alternative method that renders those herbs and spices safe. I am not prepared to continue to endanger operatives and, to some extent, consumers by persisting in the unsafe system. I seek to ban that system once it is possible for people to choose an alternative. This is the only way to meet the changing technology; not to say no to newness from fear of novelty, but to say yes to what is safe and allow others to choose for themselves.

Photo of Mr Conal Gregory Mr Conal Gregory , City of York

My right hon. Friend says that there is no distinction between a product that is pasteurised and one that is irradiated. I fully take his point about labelling and the importance of that, but scientists are able to undertake a test to show that a product has been pasteurised. How can he, with hand on heart, promote irradiated foods when, in the event of a court case, there will be no test to show whether the product has been irradiated? That invalidates the fundamentals of his argument.

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

I am afraid that my hon. Friend is not right about that, for these three reasons.

First, if one irradiates food one does something much less to it than if one pasteurises it. It always seems to me to be an amazing argument that, on the one hand, irradiation does so little to food that it cannot be detected and, on the other, what it does to food is so dangerous that it cannot be allowed.

Secondly, there is irradiated food around now. Many countries irradiate food and, because it is illegal to irradiate food in this country, it is much more likely that irradiated food will come into this country, because there is no way that it can legally be controlled. I should much prefer to ensure that if food is irradiated it is done under the very strict conditions that we will lay down, rather than have food irradiated elsewhere sneak in in the way that Opposition Members tend to suggest has been happening.

The third reason why I think that the argument is nonsense is that if I had a scintilla of doubt about whether irradiation was dangerous I would not allow it. But, as there is no doubt that irradiation is safe, I am allowing it. We will have the tight controls under the Bill to make sure that, where the benefit is clear, irradiation is properly carried out. But there are some other areas in which I would want to move in the opposite direction. With irradiation, I want to make legal something that is at the moment illegal.

There are other areas where I am especially concerned about mechanisms for dealing with food, which I do not think are properly controlled. That is why I have already announced that we shall be issuing draft regulations. The Bill provides the flexibility to introduce the most appropriate controls in all such cases.

One of the areas of which I have spoken in the past, and on which hon. Members on both sides of the House agree, involves mechanisms for preserving food such as sous-vide, where I believe that we must have much tougher regulations. The need for a constant temperature in the entire chain is such that I do not think it is a satisfactory procedure to be used without the strictest of controls, and that is why we shall introduce them.

The involvement of consumers is the most important matter with which my Ministry deals. It is important that consumers should not feel that food safety matters are left to technicians in white coats and bureaucrats in bowler hats. We should not have a society in which the public feel that it is only experts who make decisions and that the people have no part to play. That is why I decided, first, that it was necessary to involve in food safety an organisation that clearly covered all aspects of food safety in the Ministry. That is why we set up the food safety directorate.

Secondly, I decided that we should bring into the directorate the expert scientific panels that advise Ministers, the officials who spend so much time and expertise in advising Ministers, and a consumers panel. I have already announced that there would be such a panel, and today I am able to tell the House that the list of members of the panel will be placed in the Library. The members of the panel will have been selected or chosen by outside consumer organisations, not by myself, so there is no question of their having been hand-picked.

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

I knew that Labour Members would think that I would do it in that way, so I was careful not to do so. I asked only that the members of the panel should be normal consumers. Most of us want to have the advice of real consumers and not that of those who are becoming professional advisers to all sorts of organisations. I approached a range of organisations, and I am happy to say that all of them have provided me with names, every one of which I am happy to have accepted. There will be coverage of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Therefore, we shall have geographical coverage. Organisations including the Consumers Association and the National Consumer Council have been asked to submit nominations.

Photo of Mr Gordon Oakes Mr Gordon Oakes , Halton

How many people will be on the food safety directorate? What will be the total number?

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

There will be nine representatives from outside organisations, and they will sit regularly with the food Minister, who will listen to their views and put them forward. I hope very much that this system will work effectively.

There is a wider consumer concern to which I attach a great deal of importance. I believe that too often and for too long many of the decisions made, especially in the European Community, are not informed by the views of consumers. Therefore, I have established a regular meeting with the leaders of the major consumer groups. They will meet me and consider the changes that are recommended by the Agricultural Council of the Community and in the GATT round, for example. I do not believe that the consumer voice has been listened to properly and regularly on major issues and matters of real priority.

Successive Ministers have met the major consumer groups. Indeed, the first meeting that I had when I was appointed Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was with the chairman of the National Consumer Council. I met him before I met anyone else. I have since met the new chairman of the council. I have met also the chairman and senior members of the Consumers Association. I have sought to set an example in that way.

I do not believe that ad hoc meetings are sufficient. It is important to have regular consultation with the leaders of consumer opinion on the major matters that face the industry and consumers generally. I speak of matters of general food safety as well as issues that arise in the Community and in the GATT round negotiations. I hope that the first meeting of the panel of the food safety directorate will take place on Monday 12 March. I am grateful to the members of the panel for accepting membership, and I look forward to a fruitful and open dialogue.

I have written to the leaders of the consumer groups inviting them to attend the first meeting of the wider sort, of which I have spoken, on 3 April. The aim is for Ministers and consumer bodies to discuss constructively and regularly a wide range of complex policy issues that are not restricted to food safety. I hope that in this way we shall find it possible at two levels in the Ministry to have a much more regular association with consumer bodies to ensure that we are making decisions with those organisations' views fully in mind.

It is true that Ministers draw heavily already on independent expert advice, which would never be available to them unless they were part of the body responsible for the entire food chain. For that reason, I end on the point with which I began. There is no point in the Bill, or in any food safety legislation, unless it reflects the food chain from before the seed right through to the finished product on the plate of the consumer. That is why only a Ministry that is integrated—the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—can do the job properly.

The Bill will ensure, with the Ministry working at local level with the environmental health officers and at national level with territorial Departments and the Department of Health, that Britain has food that is safe and which meets all the new requirements that international legislation will demand. It will enable us to face new challenges such as the different sorts of salmonella which now concern us and finding better ways of discovering the presence of disease. We need to have the resources and the ability to take action rapidly in the few cases where there is a real danger to the health of the individual or of groups of people.

I pay tribute to the fact that Britain is, and has been for some years, the leader in food safety in the European Community. I am the only Minister among the current Agriculture Ministers who puts food safety at the top of his priority list. Anyone who suggests otherwise should sit in on some of our debates. In so doing he will learn that often I am the only Minister who raises the matter. I hope that anyone who speaks in opposition to the Bill will bear in mind the fact that Britain is leading the world in food safety. Our job is to put the matter at the top of our priorities in Britain and to ensure that fellow members of the Community put it at the top of their priorities, so that food that is imported from the rest of the Community will be as safe as food that is produced in Britain.

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 5:18 pm, 8th March 1990

The Bill has the stated aims of improving the safety of food and protecting the consumer's interest. The Labour party identifies itself wholeheartedly with those laudable aspirations, but we have serious doubts about whether the Bill can meet those desirable aims and we question whether the present Government, of all Governments, have the commitment or the determination to protect all of us as consumers of food. I concede that this afternoon the Minister made a somewhat more conciliatory speech than we are used to hearing from him, and I hope that that marks a U-turn in Government policy. If it does, he will have the Opposition support.

I was somewhat astounded to hear the Minister say that Britain has the best record on food safety. In the light of the position in which we find ourselves today, that is a staggering claim. How can the Minister make that claim when we are in the middle of the worst food poisoning epidemic since the war? In the past 10 years, food poisoning incidents in Britain have quadrupled to more than 54,000 reported cases in 1989. It is not logical to say that Britain has the best safety record in the world. That reeks of complacency, which has been the Government's record throughout.

The Government's handling of food safety is a classic example of crisis management. They have stumbled from one crisis to another. I hope that the Bill is an admission that they will try to address that problem seriously and come up with a coherent strategy for dealing with food safety issues.

The Government have a lamentable record. They have managed to achieve the almost impossible: they have alienated the consumers and the farmers at the same time, which is an unusual achievement. I was staggered to see that theCumberland News, the Parliamentary Secretary's county paper and not exactly a red-hot Socialist paper, highlighted that fact last week. The article starts with the headline: Farmers hit rock bottom. Biggest crisis for 50 years. That is the opinion of the principal newspaper of the county of Cumbria which is represented by the Parliamentary Secretary. That is a recognition of the position in which the Government have got themselves. The Cumberland News has printed that because it knows the difficulties that the Government have got themselves into.

The Labour party will not oppose the Bill at this stage because, as I have said, we hope that the Bill will be improved, and we hope that the Government have changed their course. However, it is unrealistic to attempt to enhance food safety without reforming the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I agree that we need a food safety policy which stretches from the plough to the plate. That is the Labour party's philosophy. It is our view, and I think that it is a generally held view, that the Ministery has been producer-led for too long and it is time that we had a consumer-led "Ministry of Food and Agriculture". That is the only way to move forward.

I also welcome the Minister's half announcement today of what he calls a food safety directorate. Why does he not go the whole hog, accept the Labour party's policy and have an independent food standards agency? That policy is now supported by a wide range of organizations—environmental health organisations, consumer associations, trading standards officers, and so on. Almost every organisation involved in food health and consumer protection is in favour of an independent food standards agency, at arm's length from the Government. The Minister seems to want change, but he does not want to do anything for the first time. I urge him on this occasion to go the whole hog and to create an independent food standards agency.

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

How does the hon. Gentleman square that with his statement in "Rural Socialism" that what we need is a Ministry which deals with everything? He said: from the pre-seed stage right to the plate, there is the risk of contamination, and every one of those points of risk must be blocked up, so it is important to keep food and agriculture together. If it is the Ministry that is to block those up and if it is the Ministry that is to stop the risk of contamination, how will it deal with an independent body outside?

The hon. Gentleman is trying to do two things. As usual, he is trying to lead people outside to think that they have an independent body, but he would have a Ministry which was in charge of it because he knows that it has to be answerable to the House. It cannot be independent, because in the end the Minister is the independent person answerable to the House and to him, and he would not have it otherwise.

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

The Minister read his intervention, prepared by civil servants, amazingly well, and I congratulate him on his diction. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I will answer, but the Minister's contrived intervention does not make sense. The Minister rightly said that we have a plough-to-plate policy, but at the end of the day the Minister is responsible for regulations. However, the advice on which the Minister acts will be from an independent body on the lines of the Health and Safety Executive, which is independent of Parliament and which makes recommendations and carries out certain executive functions while being answerable to the House. That is the way to obtain independent advice, not by regarding the Minister as independent. Only a few people in Britain would regard the right hon. Gentleman as an independent person.

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

What independent advice that I receive from civil servants or independent bodies does the hon. Gentleman claim is biased? Which of the scientists and independent bodies from whom we receive advice is not honest in that advice? I am sure that the professors and scientists who give us such advice would like to know whom the hon. Gentleman is accusing of giving other than independent advice.

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

It is remarkable how easily the Minister gets worked up. He did quite well in his speech, but he has got worked up very quickly since I have started my speech and the weakness of his case is beginning to show. I thought that towards the end of his speech he had made some progress. He spoke of the need to bring consumers in and made the point that there was another dimension to advice which was not necessarily scientific. In criticising me for wanting more independent advisers, he suggests that I am saying that scientists are dishonest. I am not saying that, but different scientists take different views on the same issue. At the end of the day, the Minister may have to make the decision and sometimes he will have to take into account consumer opinion.

I will give an example. I understand that there are to be 15 members of the Food Advisory Committee and that only two are consumers. That is an advance, because in the past there have been fewer than two. Even the Minister occasionally listens to non-professional advice. In saying that he wants to take the decisions and to be independent, the Minister is beginning to show that his commitment to consumer power is thin. Few people would regard the Minister as independent.

I will move on, as I may be able to get the Minister worked up again later. The Government's record during the past 10 years shows that the Minister has sided with the producers over and over again. The time has come to emphasise the role of the consumer. Chernobyl is an issue close to the Minister's heart—he always likes to get involved in a discussion on that—but it was seven weeks after the Government first learned of the dangerous levels of radioactivity that they actually took action. In those seven weeks, tens of thousands of sheep from contaminated areas went into the food chain. That is the sort of inaction that we have become accustomed to from the Government.

The litany continues. Food poisoning has been a cause of concern throughout the 1980s. Figures for different types of salmonella poisoning—the main cause of food poisoning—show that in the eight years to 1989 salmonella cases doubled. Salmonella enteritidis cases have more than doubled in three years and cases of salmonella enteritidis phase 4, which is associated mainly with eggs. have quadrupled in four years. That has resulted in many deaths. We are not talking about food scares, but about incidents in which people have died. Two hundred people died from salmonella in 1988. In November 1987, the Government knew that there was a problem with salmonella enteritidis in eggs, but no warnings were issued to hospitals—where outbreaks of food poisoning had been linked to raw eggs—for nine months until July 1988, and the Government did not bother to warn consumers about the possible hazards of eating undercooked eggs for 10 months, until August 1988. Again, there were many months of delay.

On the subject of listeria, documents that we are discussing today in conjunction with the debate, such as the Select Committee on Social Services report on food poisoning, mention that public concern about the presence of listeria in food and its health consequences was aroused in February 1989. The number of cases of listeriosis trebled between 1978 and 1980. The Government knew about the problems of listeria in ready-cooked poultry and in some cheeses as long ago as 1987, but no action was taken until the public were warned of the problem in February 1989, which put pregnant women and other vulnerable groups of people at risk. Again, there was a long delay.

Lead in milk is still a problem in the south-west of England. Early in November 1987 the Government were warned about cattle feed entering Britain, but they waited five days until 6 November before imposing restrictions and, most critical of all, they waited four days before notifying the Milk Marketing Board, which visits every dairy farm every day of the week, so the information was withheld from farmers for four days. For those four days, lead-contaminated feed was fed unnecessarily to cattle due to ministerial indecision and lack of progress.

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

Representing a constituency in the south-west I must rebut any accusation of incompetence by the Government on the lead incident. They reacted with remarkable alacrity to a serious and widespread emergency. Even the farmers most affected—one farm in my constituency suffered—will give the Ministry full marks for the way in which it acted. No affected milk reached the public.

Earlier, the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) said that sheep affected by the Chernobyl incident had reached the public. He has obviously not read the Select Committee on Agriculture report, because that is not the case. He cannot go on repeating half-truths as truths. What he says is not true. We are well protected by our Government.

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

The hon. Gentleman does well to try to defend the Government, but he does it without great success. He says that no lead-contaminated milk entered the food chain. In the four days that the Ministry withheld information from the Milk Marketing Board, tankers visited the farms and collected the milk, and the milk went into bottles and was sent to London, Birmingham and other parts of Britain.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) said that no lambs from the radioactive area went into the food chain. I can tell him which abattoirs they went to because 37,598 sheep from those areas entered the key auction mart in Cumbria in that seven-week period. That irrefutable proof has been collected by the Government's statisticians.

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew , Carlisle

I am surprised that the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) did not realise that the Select Committee on Agriculture concluded that it was most likely that sheepmeat contaminated by radiation from Chernobyl had got into the food chain as that was in the Committee's report.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) clearly has a better memory than the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare, as I too know that that is in the report. The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare should double-check the work of the Committee, on which he does so much good work.

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

I did not intervene during the Minister's speech. Last time I spoke, he intervened seven times. He has already not been able to contain himself for most of my speech today. I ask him to keep his cool for a little longer and to let us make a little more progress.

The other burning issue of the day is mad cow disease. The Government have shown considerable complacency in their handling of that disease. The latest figure is more than 460 notified cases each and every week. Yet the Southwood report stated that between 300 and 400 cases per week was the expected peak. There is clearly a major problem and I wish the Minister to take it seriously. We know that he has been hesitant about taking action. We know that it took him 18 months to make it a notifiable disease and 20 months to introduce a compulsory slaughter scheme.

We also know that it took him two and a half years to announce a ban on cattle offal for human consumption, and it was a further five months before he implemented the ban. Twenty months after making bovine spongiform encephalopathy a notifiable disease, the Minister has only just announced increased compensation to 100 per cent. of the value of the cow. If he had listened to the Labour party, the Liberal party or almost any other group and acted earlier, he would have been helping to tackle the problem.

We realise that this is a serious issue, and my final plea to the Minister is to try to get a more accurate estimate of the amount of BSE in our cattle by using random sampling of cattle slaughtered at abattoirs so that we can see how serious the problem is. The Minister may not regard it as serious, but the majority of British farmers and a large number of consumers do, and the Opposition believe that the Minister should be more responsible about this.

I do not criticise the Government only for inaction. Problems have been made worse by cuts in staff made by the Government[Interruption.] The Minister may grunt, but let us consider the actual figures. The Minister rightly says that the main thrust of his food safety policy is being carried out by local authorities through environmental health officers and trading standards officers. We think that that is a sensible approach and we endorse it, but that approach is not made easier—I think that the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) mentioned this—when there are more than 400 vacancies for environmental health officers even before they have to cope with the extra demands of the Food Safety Bill and the Environmental Protection Bill.

As the hon. Member for York rightly said, insufficient numbers of new EHOs are being trained, let alone retrained. That situation has been brought about by the pressure that the Government have put on higher education institutions to cut back training courses. I hope that the Government will do something about that, and that the Minister will talk to his colleagues and get them to break the log jam. It is a similar story for trading standards officers—there is a shortfall of 350 at present, before the new demands of the Act are placed upon them.

How does the Minister intend to make up that shortfall? Members on both sides of the House would like to know. He cannot keep giving more duties to local authorities if he will not give them the wherewithal to carry out those duties.

There is also a drastic shortage of trained veterinarians. Although their role in ensuring that animal diseases are kept in check and not transmitted to humans is increasingly crucial, education arrangements—yet again —have not kept pace with demand. It is ludicrous that only six months ago the Government were actually proposing to close two of our veterinary colleges, at Glasgow and Cambridge.

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

The hon. Gentleman may wonder why I sometimes get a little hot under the collar, but it is because what he has told the House is very far from what really happened. He knows perfectly well that that advice was given by a specialist committee. The Government did not accept the advice and, in fact, did exactly the opposite. As always, the hon. Gentleman presents the public with half-truths. Hardly a sentence of the document that he has read out to us, the contents of which he has spread around the country, stands up to examination. That is why Conservative Members are so angered by his speeches.

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

The Minister is rapidly gaining a reputation as a jack-in-the-box, and it is an apt description.

The committee was set up by the Minister's colleagues. It was asked to make a report, given the financial constraints placed on the universities by the Government. Even after that, it took massive campaigns in Scotland and Cambridge and a great deal of pressure to make the Government stop vacillating and finally change their mind.

As a result of the Government's policy, we are so short of vets that last year we had to import 345 foreign vets —almost one per day—to make up the shortfall deliberately caused by the Government. Closer to home, let us examine the Government's own state veterinary service, which has been at the forefront of the handling of problems such as BSE and salmonella. Between 1979 and 1989, the Ministry has allowed the number of vets employed by the service to fall by 27 per cent. In 1979 there were 580; in 1989 there were 422. The Minister cannot wriggle out of that. It is his direct responsibility, and he has failed in it, as he has in most of the other matters that I have mentioned.

The practical effect of the decline was outlined in a 1989 report by the Ministry itself, which revealed that the efforts devoted to BSE work by the Government's hard-working, assiduous and expert vets had been diverted primarily from welfare visits, disease surveillance work at markets and disease contingency planning. Also affected have been medicines visits and visits to meat export plants. I see the Minister acknowledge that ministerial document. It is clear that vital food safety work has gone by the board due to insufficient staffing under the Government's tutelage.

I hope that it will not embarass the Minister too much if I continue to quote from the report, which reveals a further snapshot of the chaos that the Government have caused: a large number of vacancies have been carried in the Division, through recruitment moratoria and delays … This has resulted in a serious contraction in our science databases from which policy is developed and in providing scientific evidence in response to safety issues. The Government have ignored the advice of their own internal staff, and have allowed both education and staffing to fall behind the nation's health and hygiene needs.

When we start looking into food research, the story gets worse. The House has, of course, debated the issue. The Government-funded institute of food research at Bristol is due to close at the end of the year, and all the staff have now received their redundancy payments. The closure decision is highly regrettable, and the country will rue it.

Even if our Government do not recognise the importance of the institute, others do. Only six weeks after the announcement of the closure of what is probably the premier meat institute in Europe, the Japanese announced that they were to establish an exact replica, and they have written to the authorities at Bristol asking for advice. In a sense, that proves my point better than anything else. I have to say, albeit with some sadness, that the Japanese have an uncanny knack of predicting future demands and needs. Certainly, their predictions are much more accurate than those of the British Government.

Even if the Minister will not take advice from me, from other Opposition Members or even from some of his hon. Friends, perhaps he will take the advice of his own Consultative Committee on Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Research, which has called for a substantial increase in the resources available to food research in the light of the social and economic importance of food research and the lack of adequate scientific knowledge on which to base policy. The committee also voiced unease about the standards of food safety within the country…Food poisoning is a preventable disease not being prevented. In order to reverse the increase in microbiological foodborne illness and dispel public alarm, there is an obvious need for a significant increase in a co-ordinated effort to control the contamination of food at every point in the food chain from the very start…through to consumption. That brings me back to the whole issue of the Government's failure to tackle the problem. The Bill states that they will work through local authorities, and we approve of that. According to the financial memorandum, The additional cost for local authorities is likely to be of the order of £30 million a year from 1991–1992 onwards. This will be taken into account in next year's Revenue Support Grant Settlement. I ask the Minister to come clean. He seemed to skate over an earlier intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise). What exactly does that quotation mean? Does it mean that £30 million will be given to the local authorities as a whole, or will they be given only a proportion of that sum? It may have escaped the Minister's notice, but there is at present some national disquiet about the whole subject of local payment for services. I understand that in his own local authority, which I believe is Conservative-controlled—as, indeed, is the county—the poll tax is £103 above the Government's recommended level. It will be difficult to blame Labour authorities for that. There is some local curiosity about where the money is to come from. Perhaps the Minister will also tell us how it is to be dispersed among the various local authorities.

Is the Minister aware—the Parliamentary Secretary certainly is—that some authorities, such as Cumbria, contain a number of food establishments but are very thinly inhabited? Will he ensure that they are given extra help, and also that no authority is penalised financially because it already operates a superior food safety regime? The Minister said that he hoped that the Bill would lead to standardisation of the services provided by locall authorities. I hope that that means a levelling up and not a levelling down of services, which has been the hallmark of the Government so far. Can the Minister reassure the House that local authorities which provide excellent services will not be penalised? It is a simple request. If he can give us such an assurance, I shall be pleased.

When the Minister made his announcement, it was generally accepted that £30 million might be about right, but has he been approached more recently by local authorities? We have carried out a detailed examination and our figures show that the Minister is about 25 per cent. out. Has any work been done to find out the total cost? The city of Birmingham believes that if it is to implement the provisions of the Bill it will need to appoint at least 26 additional qualified staff. With accompanying back-up facilities, that will add about £725,000 a year to the city's budget.

The only contentious provision in the Bill relates to irradiation. Clause 18 enables the Minister to approve irradiation. He has said on previous occasions, and again today, that if the Bill is passed he will allow food to be irradiated. Why does the Minister want to jump the gun? He referred to the very good report prepared by the Select Committee in the other place, which questions why the Government want to legislate in such a hurry when the subject is under active consideration by the European Commission.

The Minister made great play, as he always does, of the need for harmonisation. After 1992, that will not be a luxury—it will be a fact of life. Why is the Minister not prepared to wait for the European Commission to reach a decision on irradiation? West Germany, which does not allow irradiation, Holland which does allow it, and all the other EEC countries will then have to operate under the same conditions. I hope that the Minister will address that serious question.

The Minister also made great play of the Jehovah's Witness approach to irradiation. He is the last person to bring religion into politics. He has the reputation of being a xenophobe. To that reputation he has now added another—that of being a zealot. He is not prepared to wait for a European Commission decision on irradiation. He wants to push ahead on his own because he thinks he knows best. I ask the Minister just to consider whether he might have got it wrong. Australia, Sweden, New Zealand and even the much-vaunted United States are moving away from that technology, but the Minister is trying to persuade us to rush like lemmings into using it.

The Minister frequently refers to the fact that irradiation is permitted in the United States, which is true, but the only items allowed to be irradiated are herbs and certain tropical fruits, and a number of states, including the populous ones of New York and New Jersey, have decided not to allow any food to be irradiated.

We shall wish to discuss the details of irradiation during later stages, but there is massive consumer opposition to it. I understand that only yesterday the Tory-controlled Norfolk county council passed a resolution to the effect that even if irradiated food were permitted in this country, the council would not allow it to be served in any of its school canteens. I suspect that Norfolk will be in the vanguard and that other counties will decide to follow its lead. If our food is so good and wholesome, as I believe that it is, why do we need to irradiate it? That is the $64,000 question.

There are many other issues, such as secrecy, licensing, registration, training and labelling, which we shall seek to raise at a later stage if the Bill receives a Second Reading. However, the catalogue of delays and mismanagement that I have already outlined reflects, in part, the Government's desire not to invest in food safety. I have already suggested that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food needs to be more consumer conscious and more aware of consumer interests. I regret that the Minister did not understand my point when I referred to a food standards agency, but those who write about such an agency and who are connected with the food trade understand it.

As I have already said, we do not intend to oppose the Bill. It is a step in the right direction and we shall try to improve it. Food safety is vital and necessary, but the Government ought to have gone a stage further and been more positive. By means of the Bill they should have promoted the concept of a healthy as well as a safe food policy.

Photo of Mrs Peggy Fenner Mrs Peggy Fenner , Medway 5:55 pm, 8th March 1990

I am very pleased to have this opportunity warmly to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister. We need this Bill. The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) referred to the time when we first learnt about salmonella in eggs. We have to act on the new scientific knowledge that is now available to us.

For part of my parliamentary career I was concerned with the production end of agriculture. It will be obvious to all hon. Members that I greatly appreciate food. I was also concerned with the drinks trade, but perhaps I ought not to boast about that.

The Bill began its passage through Parliament in the other place. The public have already had an opportunity, therefore, to comment upon it. Amendments to the Bill were made in the other place which have gone some way towards improving it. I have to declare an interest in a food federation. It is to be found in the Register of Members' Interests.

It is unfortunate that by trying to improve food safety we are maligning the nature of our food. I was delighted to hear the hon. Member for South Shields say that our food is good and wholesome. I should like him to repeat that statement on many occasions. Later this evening we shall all have a meal and I know that we will not worry about the safety of the food that we eat. People are confident about the safety of our food. Therefore, my right hon. Friend is right to take comfort from the fact that our food safety standards are among the highest in the world.

Anyone who travels in Europe—I know that some Opposition Members, who are not in their places at the moment, boast about not having a passport—and goes into the kitchen of a French restaurant, the land of haute cuisine, the land which is fussy about good food, will find his hair standing on end because of the bacteriological implications of the manner in which the stock is boiled. Our food is good; our standards are high. Food is there to be enjoyed and we can be confident about its quality and safety. However, we have to contend with such tragedies as Chernobyl. The current regulations do not always cover sufficiently the emergency powers that the Government will have to take in those circumstances.

In many ways the Bill is an enabling Bill because we must have regulations as we must be able to take action quickly in an emergency or a crisis. Although that is covered by clause 17, my right hon. Friend will be more likely to use clause 18 if irradiation is not prohibited in Britain. I know that a Ministry must take account of expert scientific advice based on highly qualified knowledge. A Government Department cannot really take advice from anywhere except such a superb source. We are bound to accept that experts offer qualified advice. I chide the hon. Member for South Shields because I believe that scientific experts offer impartial and independent advice.

My right hon. Friend has left the Chamber, but I should like to chide him a little too about Jehovah's Witnesses. I could not possibly accept that a Jehovah's Witness attitude would be exhibited by, for example, the women's institutes or the townswomen's guilds as they represent the real consumers. They are the people who do the shopping and, for the most part, cook the food. I do not deny that hon. Gentlemen cook food, but they will know what I mean. Even women such as myself, who have the privilege of being among the few women in the House, spend some of their time making sure that their husbands are well fed and, by and large, buying and cooking the food. Some of my hon. Friends think that I ought to be doing that all the time, but I like to do other things as well. I am a good cook, and I am also immodest.

There is still public concern about what we accept as the evidence of the experts and the qualified scientists. My right hon. Friend will have to take account of the public perception. It may be an erroneous perception, but we still have to deal with it; we cannot bulldoze it. I am much relieved because I know my right hon. Friend and I applaud what he has done to ensure that the consumers' panel will have a genuine role on his food executive because I want real consumers to be involved. There is a danger that consumers can become highly professional. To avoid that we must take account of the perception of the real consumers. I number the women's institutes and the townswomen's guilds among those real consumers.

I know the consultation processes of my right hon. Friend's Department. The hon. Member for South Shields is fair and knowledgeable about that and I know that he will join me in applauding the consultation processes that are involved by statute in that Department. I welcome the way in which my hon. Friend will bring in the consumers' view. The regulations must come before the House and the consumers' panel will have an input. Whatever the expert view on irradiation, we must, with education, information and consultation, ensure that the public understand the advantages and the assurances that have led Ministers and experts to reach their conclusions.

I am the chairman of the all-party retail trade group and I approve of the way in which the new regulations will take into account production as well as retailing and the consumer. Environmental health officers have always felt that it is valuable to get at the production end before the products reach the retail trade. That is extremely important. I have no doubt that some parts of the Bill will be hotly debated in Committee. "Deemed due diligence" is a mouthful which is still of some concern among those who will be confronted by the legislation. It is marginally better than "due diligence", but I have no doubt that it will be thoroughly debated in Committee.

I believe that my right hon. Friend has brought to the Ministry a great personal feel for listening to consumers. I applaud that. I was sent to serve in the European Parliament briefly when consumers really did not have too much voice in Europe. The European Parliament was a producer-oriented organisation. At least now consumer organisations are allowed to look at the proposals of the CAP early in each of the pricing years. I counted that as a small victory, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am not sure that the rest of Europe has moved along too much, and it is most significant and right that we should set our partners in the Community a high example, as we do in food standards.

My right hon. Friend referred to labelling. My first concern was that irradiated food should be labelled so that people could choose. I seek an absolute assurance from my right hon. Friend that people will not be able to eat something that is irradiated and not properly labelled. That worries consumers. People must have the ability to choose not to eat food which is irradiated and they must be certain; otherwise, labelling will be brought into disrepute. I have no doubt that in the Minister's reply to the debate and in Committee those reassurances will be forthcoming.

I welcome the clause about training. There is a very big gap. I worry about the teaching of home economy in schools. Although I know that the Ministry produces a helpful educational book on food and the handling of food, it should liaise closely with the Department of Employment and the Department of Education and Science in relation to new food technologies and the new hazards. Schools should concentrate on the handling of food and food technologies. We all know about the scare involving microwave ovens. I often speak to people in the food business who tell me that they even have to advise their own wives on the correct temperature for the refrigerator. I have had to ask questions about chilled foods. These new technologies are not understood instinctively, so it is necessary that home economics courses in schools should provide a good programme to fill the gap.

I do not often share my worries with the Opposition, but I say today that one of my worries concerns the need to be certain that we have enough enforcement officers. If we are to reassure people about irradiated foods, including correct labelling, those foods will have to be tested occasionally. I welcome my right hon. Friend's promise that £30 million will go towards the provision of more enforcement officers. I hope very much that he and the Department will be able to secure the necessary training and retraining of professionals in this very important career.

I wish the Bill a fair wind. I do not think that it will have many opponents, and I am sure that any small disagreements will be ironed out in Committee.

Photo of Mr Gordon Oakes Mr Gordon Oakes , Halton 6:11 pm, 8th March 1990

I agree with very much of what was said by the hon. Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) and especially with her remarks about education in food and food hygiene—a matter about which I shall say more later. I agree even with the hon. Lady's welcome for the Bill. Indeed, I think that the legislation is welcomed by most Opposition Members. However, the function of an Opposition is to concentrate on the bits of legislation that they do not like. There are in this Bill considerable improvements on the existing situation, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) said, the Department is to be congratulated on that. If it were otherwise, why should we have a one-line Whip? The fact that we have a one-line Whip implies Opposition agreement with what the Bill sets out to do.

I am not as happy about the idea of a food standard.s agency as my hon. Friend seemed to be. The Government have increasingly brought this difficulty on their own heads because of the suspicion that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is an utterly producer-orientated Department. Opposition Members, the press and Members of Parliament certainly feel that the Ministry is the mouthpiece of farmers and producers. It may not be so, but that is the impression that has been created, and events of just over a year ago reinforced the view.

When the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) spoke up and told the truth, a hail of vituperation descended upon her, and in the end she lost her job. Clearly, that was the result of the stand taken by producers, aided and abetted by the Ministry—indeed, the Government—and by the National Farmers Union. The hon. Lady is a redoubtable political fighter, and, like any other political fighter, she can be a political in-fighter if her back is to the wall. The action that she took caused horror among some hon. Members, but if she had not acted in such a dramatic way, we might not have got this Bill. It might have been left on the shelf somewhere. In any case, it would not have been so forceful and so strong.

The public and the Consumers Association have talked about an independent food standards authority. I am attracted by the idea, so picturesquely put, "from the plough to the plate". I wonder whether the Ministry, could help itself in this respect. If it is genuinely interested in the consumer, if it has turned over a new leaf, if the consumer is its foremost concern, let it have a look at its own title —the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. "Food" seems to have been dragged in almost as an afterthought.

When I was a youngster during the war we had a Ministry of Food. Why is this Ministry not called the Ministry of Food? "Food" is the generic term and would bring in agricultural and fisheries. That title might remind Ministers and civil servants that their primary duty to this House and to the nation concerns food itself, and not necessarily food producers, processors, retailers or, in the case of fisheries, catchers.

I pay tribute to the Government for the way in which the Bill was handled in Committee in another place. I am an honorary vice-president of the Association of County Councils and an honorary vice-president of the Environmental Officers' Association. In view of yesterday's debate, I lay heavy stress on the word "honorary". The Association of County Councils is certainly well satisfied with the progress made in another place. As hon. Members will know, the county councils, along with the district councils, are to be food authorities. The Minister will decide eventually which duties should be allocated to which councils, and the sooner the better, because a local authority likes to know fairly well in advance what it is to be doing in the future.

The Food and Drink Federation, which I realise may well consist of the big boys of the industry, is also basically very satisfied with the legislation. Indeed, it has given the Government considerable co-operation. It does, however, have one nagging doubt. as, even without legislation, it has been so co-operative in allowing whole batches of food to be taken away, at loss to its members, the Government should look again in Committee at the question of compensation. We are not dealing with the odd tin but, possibly, with a whole batch of food. The compensation ought not to come out of the £30 million, though that is a matter about which I shall say more in a few moments.

The Government should display some sympathy towards the Food and Drink Federation, which has been so co-operative on the Bill. Indeed, it has co-operated whenever there has been a food scare, whether as a result of a maniac threatening to put glass in baby food or as a result of some genuine fault.

My primary worry concerns finance. Last autumn the Government allocated £30 million to local government for the purpose of implementing the Bill. Presumably that figure, like others, was based on an inflation rate of about 4 per cent. per annum. I do not think the figure has been revised since the autumn, when the Bill went to another place. Perhaps it could be looked at again.

As the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) and others have said, there is a severe shortage of environmental health officers in this country. It is not just a question of our being unable to train officers; it is also a question of the salaries that they receive for the enormously onerous job that they do. They are concerned not only with food, but with housing standards and all manner of other things. People qualified to do all these things cannot be found for the sort of salary that environmental health officers are offered. We really must give some thought to those salaries and to whether the £30 million that I have mentioned is appropriate.

Clause 24 encourages food authorities to provide education and training for all those who are connected with food. That is imperative. As has been said, a lot of what has gone wrong has been due to ignorance of modern food processes. How many people know that chilled food that has been taken out of the freezer must not be put back? The hon. Member for Medway may know that kind of basic thing, my wife may know it, and I may know it, but many youngsters do not. The clause refers to persons … involved in food businesses, whether as proprietors or employees or otherwise. Surely the words "or otherwise" imply all of us. As we all eat, we are all in some way involved in the food business.

The hon. Member for Medway rightly mentioned education. It is a question not just of training employees, or proprietors, or cooks, or waitresses—of course, it is important that all those people be trained—but of training everyone in the education system in food hygiene as a basic science. In my day at school it was called cookery; that shows how near my "sell by" date I am. Then it became domestic science. Now many schools do not have the subject on the curriculum. It used to be confined almost exclusively to girls.

Every girl and every boy should be trained at school in food hygiene, for various reasons. On the sad side, we have a divorce rate of nearly one in three. After divorce we have the sad prospect of men with no idea of what to do about food. In the past they have left it to their mothers, and then to their wives. They do not know how to cook, and they know nothing about food hygiene. On the good side of the equation is the fact that most young people, when they get married and even when they have youngsters, share the preparation and cooking of food. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) pointed out at Question Time, this is international women's day. Whether or not their wives go out to work, it is right that men should do their share of the housework.

It is not in the direct province of the Minister of Agriculture, but I plead with him to ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to consider the inclusion of food and food hygiene in the curriculum for every boy and girl. Many of the present difficulties arise from a complete lack of understanding not only of modern techniques but of ancient techniques. People know nothing about food. Training in food hygiene at school would help to solve the problems of food authorities. If youngsters had a basic knowledge there would be less difficulty in training them as chefs or to work behind a meat counter on a market stall.

On the vexed question of irradiation, I share the same view as my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. There is no need to irradiate good, wholesome food. If the food is not good and wholesome, we have no business to be selling it to the public. So the whole thing becomes a vicious circle. I am surprised at the tenacity with which the Minister holds to his views on irradiation. He mentioned particularly herbs and spices. I would not go to the stake over the irradiation of herbs and spices because there might be a need to irradiate them. What worries me is the irradiation of fish, chickens, meat and fruit. In the United States irradiation is confined to specific categories of food. The Minister should consider, when making regulations under clause 18, limiting severely the number of categories to which irradiation may apply.

I was dissatisfied with what the Minister said about consumer choice. The consumer will not have a choice unless food is marked in a supermarket. Certainly the consumer will not have a choice in a cafe, a restaurant or a pub. The Minister said that food would have to be marked. Will the proprietor of a cafe, restaurant or pub do that? It may happen in large restaurants but not in a small cafe. The pub landlord will not do it. The consumer will not have a choice between irradiated chicken and non-irradiated chicken.

Photo of Mr Gordon Oakes Mr Gordon Oakes , Halton

Because the proprietor will not say; if he does not tell the consumer that the food has been irradiated, how is the consumer to find out? The Minister admitted that there is no way to test whether food has been irradiated. He used the example of pasteurisation. Any scientist can tell whether milk has been pasteurised but no way has yet been discovered for an environmental health officer to find out whether food has been irradiated. Until that is possible, regulations should not be brought in. We should at least wait until we see what Europe does. The Minister is acting with undue haste, and certainly against the views of the public.

The hon. Member for Medway mentioned women's institutes. Earlier today we heard about people being militant. Women's institutes are not usually militant but they feel militant about irradiation because people will have no choice. The Bill is not giving choice to consumers; indeed, it is taking choice away from them. We do not want to store up difficulties and problems for the future under the guise of a Food Safety Bill which may be known as the food danger legislation in 10 years, after further research has been done. Therefore, I plead with the Government to consider again the vexed question of irradiation.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Davyhulme 6:26 pm, 8th March 1990

I welcome the broad sweep of the Bill and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on his recognition of the enhanced role of local government environmental health officers. I thank him for the £30 million that is to be provided.

However, there is concern that the Bill, if unamended, will make possible the sale of irradiated foodstuffs without Parliament having any further opportunity of debating the matter and voting on it. I am sure that the Minister will appreciate that the matter is of too great consequence and public concern to be dealt with under the statutory instrument procedure provided for in the Bill. For that reason I ask him to agree to accept an amendment which would require at least an affirmative resolution of the House before the irradiation of foodstuff was allowed.

Irradiation of food arouses understandable concerns which have been articulated, as my hon. Friend mentioned, by the Consumers Association, townswomen's guilds, women's institutes, the London Food Commission and the public. Although the Minister may attack those who voice concern, the Ministry itself has viewed the potential dangers as sufficiently serious for his predecessors to ban the irradiation of foodstuffs. That ban continues to this day. The Minister has announced his intention of lifting the ban and, indeed, has gone out of his way to make himself the champion of irradiated food.

I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends who are in charge of the Bill to pause for thought before going ahead with these proposals and to consider whether this is the moment to stir up a new hornets' nest of potential anti-Government discord. Are the Government really riding such a crest of a wave of popularity that they can afford to have arrayed against them an entirely new and wide-ranging coalition of forces? Where is the groundswell of public opinion demanding the irradiation of food? The Minister mentioned that the World Health Organisation is in favour of it and it has been suggested that possibly a single supermarket chain will also welcome the move. However, there is no popular demand for it. The overwhelming majority of individuals who have been polled on the issue state that they would be unlikely to buy irradiated foodstuffs.

Food growers and manufactuters, together with supermarkets, have gone to enormous trouble and expense to supply the housewife, on a day-to-day basis, with a vast range of fresh and wholesome food. It would be regrettable if the House were to do anything to undermine that arrangement. Inevitably, there is concern that allowing irradiation will provide the cowboys of the food trade with an opportunity to extend the sell-by date of foods or, in other ways, allow food to be sold which could not be sold legally today. That would provide unfair competition for those supermarkets which refused to carry such produce.

The Secretary of State has made much of the requirement for clear labelling, and I warmly welcome that commitment. However, he well knows that a significant majority of consumers want nothing to do with irradiated foodstuffs. Therefore, there is a clear commercial interest for a manufacturer, unscrupulous retailer or restaurateur to remove the irradiated food label. How can the consumer be protected against such sharp practice unless some test is available to establish whether food has been irradiated?

Our greatest anxiety must focus on the safety of irradiated foods. Not enough is known of the potential dangers to humans from continued consumption of irradiated food over a significant period. The Minister's experts advise that the process is entirely safe, but they can give no evidence to show that such food has been consumed by humans on a regular, long-term basis over a significant period. I beg my right hon. Friend to consider that the advice of his experts may be flawed and in 10, 20 or even 30 years' time his successor in office may be given entirely different expert advice about the safety of this process.

We cannot ignore the experience of Sellafield over the past 30 years. There, the experts' advice about what constituted a safe level of exposure for workers engaged in the nuclear industry has had to be drastically revised recently in the light of experience—an experience that seems to have left a legacy of children stricken with leukaemia.

My right hon. Friend declares that if he had a scintilla of doubt about the safety of irradiated food he would not be recommending it to the House. I am sure that he is sincere when he says that, but he cannot deny that scientific data on the effects on humans of eating irradiated foodstuffs over many years is non-existent. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility that, in years ahead, there may prove to be unforeseen side effects of the introduction of irradiated foods into the national diet? I urge caution.

Will my right hon. Friend at least consider delaying going ahead with these proposals until there is an agreed European Community directive on the subject and an effective irradiation test? Certainly both those moves would be warmly welcomed by the various groups outside the House who are concerned about the process and to which reference has been made today.

Photo of Thomas McAvoy Thomas McAvoy , Glasgow Rutherglen 6:34 pm, 8th March 1990

I represent the political arm of the Co-operative Movement and am sponsored by it. That fact is declared in the Register of Members' Interests, just in case any Conservative Members are in doubt.

The Co-operative trade movement, particularly its consumer-owned wholesale and retailing arm, welcomes the Bill because it intends to increase consumer protection and encourage reputable food businesses. It welcomes the way in which the Bill strengthens the powers of local enforcement officers in the clauses covering improvement notices and prohibition orders, with a wider definition of unfit food and a new emphasis on safety enforcement in factories as well as shops.

As a Scot I welcome the creation of a single Bill covering England, Scotland and Wales. I know that the orders will also cover Northern Ireland. I share the Co-operative Movement's view that the Scottish system of enforcement is superior to that in England and Wales. I particularly welcome the introduction of compulsory training for food handlers, mentioned by the hon. Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner). The Co-operative Movement, in common with other reputable food retailers, has long campaigned against the current position where someone can set up in the food business without the slightest training, even in basic hygiene. That must be wrong, and we welcome the change.

Some questions still remain to be answered. Debates in another place and tonight's debate have given considerable time to the issue of food irradiation. However, there has still been no satisfactory answer to why the Government want to jump the European gun and legalise the process before they are forced to do so by the European Commission.

I echo some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill). There is a limit to the assurances that scientific research can give about irradiation. Ultimately, the effect of long-term consumption of irradiated food by humans can be assessed only over a long period. In addition, some minority groups may choose diets with lots of irradiated foods, but that can only be tested practically. I do not like to refer to him when he is not present, but the Minister kept saying that there must be choice. Surely the Government have a duty to ensure that they give the public a safe choice. That is starkly missing from what the Minister has said so far.

Undoubtedly, there is considerable consumer concern and opposition to the irradiation of food. At the Co-operative congress, several Co-operative members stressed that concern. People are people, and those doubts and fears could well override the scientific arguments on safety—we have seen that demonstrated in the move for additive-free food. The consumer will need to be convinced of the benefits of irradiation and assured that irradiated foods are not harmful. I again echo the sentiment of the hon. Member for Davyhulme that today's assurances may be tomorrow's liabilities. The Minister has still not addressed that worry. I hope that he will respond to it later.

Some new questions have arisen since the debate in the other place. The Richmond report on the microbiological safety of food calls for the licensing of some food shops. That seems to be contrary to assurances given by Ministers that food shops would have to undergo only a simple registration process after they had opened. I support the licensing of all food production premises. Do the Government intend to license anything other than irradiation?

There are other issues that are not covered by the Bill. Consumer education—enabling shoppers to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of change in food technology—is not even mentioned in the Bill or, as far as I can make out, in ministerial statements.

My greatest concern is that there is a great hole at the Bill's centre—it has been well emphasised even in the short debate we have had—down which all the Government's good intentions may disappear. There is no guarantee that any of the new powers will be used. There is every probability that in some parts of the country they will not be used and that where they are used they will be applied inconsistently.

The Government do not enforce the food safety laws; the local authorities do. Powers old and new are split between the relevant local authorities, and enforcement officers are divided between the three professions—environmental health officers, trading standards officers and public analysts. The European Community is about to add to that by insisting on the involvement of vets. The Government are giving this diffuse and unco-ordinated enforcement structure a whole set of new powers and priorities, but they have not taken a single step to interfere with the patchwork of local authrity powers and bring about a single profession of food safety inspectors.

All they are doing is putting another £30 million in the revenue support grant for local authorities. I have yet to hear what assessment was made to reach that figure. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) mentioned how much the city of Birmingham, as one authority, would require. We have still not heard from the Government what criteria or assessments were used to arrive at the figure of £30 million. That seems to be a drop in the bucket. It is a reflection of the Government's rhetoric that they are concerned about food safety, but they are not willing to ensure that it is enforced correctly.

I support the democracy of local government. Bearing in mind the importance of food safety, there is nothing in the Bill—although I stand to be corrected—to ensure that local authorities spend the amount that they receive on food safety inspection. That is the weak link in the Bill.

In short, the Government can put the Bill on the statute book, but they can only hope that it will be implemented. That is a reflection on them. The gap in the Bill between intention and implementation is the essence of the case for an independent food safety agency—a proposal that has wide support from consumers, retailers and enforcement officers. Such an agency could be given powers of co-ordination of local enforcement effort, of suggesting to the Government how regulations should be drafted, and of allocating resources so that districts with a larger number of food factories are not overstretched in the allocation and distribution of their resources. The agency would be a sharing of power by all those directly involved—consumers, local authorities, the enforcement professions and food businesses. Those are the people who know about food. They depend on each other for the food chain to work and for it to be safe.

Ministers seem to resist that idea, partly because of dogma. Part of the reason for that dogmatic attitude is that they are clearly afraid to go to the Prime Minister and suggest public involvement in that area, as it would be viewed in the narrow tunnel vision pertaining in No. 10 Downing street as another quango, and the Minister who had the guts to say that would be sacked.

The Government cannot ignore two facts. The model of an independent agency answerable to the Government and to Parliament already works in the comparable area of health and safety at work. The Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive have proved their worth, even though they are starved of the Government funds that they deserve. They operate by using the local authorities as their agents. That model would work for food safety.

The other fact that the Government cannot ignore is that the job of co-ordinating the level of enforcement—the number of inspections made by each local authority—will be carried out soon. The Government accepted the responsibility for doing that when last June, in the European Council of Ministers, Britain voted for the official inspection of foodstuff directive to become law. That directive lays down in article II: By 16 October each year, and for the first time in 1991, the Commission shall transmit to the member states a recommendation concerning a co-ordinated programme of inspections for the following year. Within 18 months, the Government will have to set down a co-ordinated programme of food inspection. They will have to take powers to compel local authorities to do what they say. That is what clause 18 of the Bill is a bout. The Government cannot pose as defenders of local government autonomy. They will have to do the job of co-ordination. How much better it would be if that job had been handed over to a properly accountable body consisting of all the people and interests involved. Instead, the power imposed by the European Community will be handed to the same Ministers whose secrecy and complacency were the biggest single contribution to the food safety scandals that the Bill is supposed to resolve.

6 46 pm

Photo of Mr Paul Marland Mr Paul Marland , Gloucestershire West

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) on making the best fist he could by using only half the facts and one or two lines from the Select Committee report. He laid great emphasis on the fact that 38,000 lambs were sold between 2 May and 20 June. As he may remember, his hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and I served on that Select Committee. He was right to say that 38,000 lambs were sold, but the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said in evidence: the animals who were going to slaughter were mature animals who had put on most of their body weight before the Chernobyl cloud arrived; these animals were not showing high caesium levels. In fairness to the hon. Member for South Shields, I point out that that section—for the benefit of the hon. Member for Carlisle, it was paragraph 33—then said: the balance of probabilities would tend to indicate that some lamb above the limit entered the food-chain before 20 June. But we do not believe that significant numbers are likely to have done so, for the circumstantial reasons given by the Ministry. I do not want the hon. Gentleman to think that we took only the word of the Ministry on that, because we went into it thoroughly. The Select Committee went to Carlisle and Bangor and also took evidence throughout the country to determine exactly what had happened, and that was the Committee's conclusion. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), who was the Chairman of the Committee.

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew , Carlisle

I do not wish to mislead the House, but examination of the evidence led the Committee to conclude that lambs above the irradiation limit may have been slaughtered. Therefore, it is highly probable that some were.

Photo of Mr Paul Marland Mr Paul Marland , Gloucestershire West

I am not denying that some were; it is the number that I am disputing. The hon. Member for South Shields claimed that 38,000 lambs went into the food chain——

Photo of Mr Keith Raffan Mr Keith Raffan , Delyn

It is misleading.

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

I said, very carefully, that 37,598 sheep from areas of high radioactivity entered the abattoirs in the restricted area. It does not matter about the numbers, because the hon. Gentleman and I are at one on the probability that some contaminated sheep entered the food chain. However, the Ministry knew seven weeks in advance about the statistical radioactive level. If it had imposed restrictions then rather than dilly-dallying, no contaminated sheep would have entered the food chain.

Photo of Mr Paul Marland Mr Paul Marland , Gloucestershire West

The hon. Gentleman has a silver tongue and, once again, is doing his best to exaggerate the position. There was a great deal of exaggeration throughout his speech. I have the facts, and they put a quite different light on the matter from that suggested by the hon. Gentleman. One reason for much of the concern about radiation and irradiation is that people are not 100 per cent. sure of the facts.

The hon. Member for South Shields heavily criticised the Government for doing too little too late, which is a tune that we often hear. I represent a Gloucestershire constituency, as the hon. Gentleman may know. As other hon. Members have done, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the way in which he reacted on the question of lead in animal feed. A representative of West Midland Farmers, a large agricultural co-operative in my constituency, telephoned me to say that the Minister had over-reacted massively and that the restrictions were too strict. My right hon. Friend has said rightly that we want to be sure in these matters. That has been the way in which he has sought to run his Ministry, so the Opposition's criticism is unfair.

We all agree that fresh food is the best; there is no doubt about that. Nevertheless, there is a place for the irradiation of food. My hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) said that her husband did the shopping. I do the shopping sometimes. If I buy fresh prawns and put them in the refrigerator, they do not seem to last long. If I bought irradiated prawns, they would last a couple of extra days and I should welcome that. Irradiation does not make bad food good because it does not change the nature of the food. If food is to be preserved through irradiation, it must be good food before it is irradiated.

We have received letters on irradiation and I am sure that Opposition Members have, too. Many of those who have written believe that the irradiation of food is a fundamentally sound practice and it is widely approved by the trade, although I accept that there are a few doubters. The word "irradiation" does not even appear in the Bill and it does not give permission now for food to be irradiated. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary agreeing.

There has been massive overstatement in the Opposition's speeches. I accept that groups such as the National Federation of Women's Institutes are concerned. The NFWI has lobbied me, as it has other hon. Members. It has listened too much to the speeches of the hon. Member for South Shields, which are enough to terrify anybody. He has obviously had a strong effect on the NFWI. The London Food Commission was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill). We must look for a slightly more accurate and reliable source of information than that. It is so discredited that it has even changed its name.

My right hon. Friend is merely making it possible for irradiation to take place at a later date. I agree, as other hon. Members have said, that if we are to irradiate food, it must be carried out to the same standard. We should have Euro- standards. There has been a heck of a lot of disadvantage for our farmers. As we have to declare our interest in debates, I must say, as many hon. Members know, that I am involved in farming. The fact that we have higher standards than those in Europe has put our egg producers in a difficult position. We have been through the dreadful problem of finding salmonella in eggs, yet British eggs are now unidentifiable from imported eggs in the shops.

I was extremely pleased to read recently in The Daily Telegraphalways a reliable source of news—that the Israelis have discovered a way of spraying advertising messages on to eggs. I read that one can now buy Israeli eggs that have the words "Drink Coca-Cola" sprayed on the shell. I am hopeful that that technology will be used by our egg industry to enable it to put "Laid in Britain" on British produced eggs.

There is an undoubted need to take extra precautions on food safety and the move towards that is consumer driven. Much consumer feeling has been caused by an inaccurate understanding of the situation, as was the case with eggs, and I hope that some action will be taken. Consumers are interested in a system through which they can feel that food is 100 per cent. safe. Irradiation may be one way to achieve that.

The microbiologists have much to answer for on this matter. There is no doubt that some microbiologists—and we come into contact with a few in the Select Committee —are a good deal more interested in promoting themselves than in promoting safe food. We hear a great deal of drivel from some microbiologists. Most recently, they said that we should ban tomato ketchup and brown bread because there was something wrong with those products. How ludicrous! Furthermore, there is confusion in the minds of many consumers because they believe that if they eat irradiated food it is like eating nuclear waste from Sellafield. It is utterly different. Consumers need to be educated about the benefits of irradiating food.

How many hon. Members and how many members of the public know that surgical dressings are regularly irradiated? If one cuts oneself or suffers an injury, the surgical dressing will have been irradiated before being applied to the arm, or whatever. What reaction was there when salted beef was first introduced? I bet that there was a heck of a response from some consumers who believed, for some reason, that it was probably dangerous. Perhaps in the fulness of time the hon. Member for South Shields will tell us about that. The industry and informed opinion believe that irradiation probably has a part to play in keeping food in this country and in the rest of Europe safe.

As other hon. Members have said, labelling is vital. I am not sure exactly how restaurateurs will label chicken, for example, if it has been irradiated. Without doubt, an answer to that problem will be developed in the fulness of time. Those who produce organic food are quick enough to label it if they think that there will be some advantage to them. I am sure that, even in the most difficult circumstances, we shall find a way to label irradiated food. I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister say that the World Health Organisation approved of irradiating food.

As other hon. Members have said, training in the shops and in the home on how to handle food in various circumstances is vital. Frozen food is sometimes thawed too quickly. Food is sometimes handled with dirty hands or is stored incorrectly in the refrigerator which gives rise to a great deal of infection in food. I do not know about the future training of environmental health officers, but I believe that they should be trained as well. Some environmental health officers came to tell the Select Committee about salmonella in eggs, and I was shocked to realise how little they knew about the subject.

The registering of food premises will also help to raise standards. Our standards must be Euro-standards, and all local authorities must abide by the same standards. There is nothing more confusing than for local authorities to be left to their own devices in interpreting regulations as they see fit. My hon. Friend the Member for Medway spoke about one officer telling a restaurant to fix tiles in its kitchen and another telling it to to take them down. Such woolly thinking is no good to anybody. We must have regulations that everyone can understand.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Bonsor Sir Nicholas Bonsor , Upminster

I wholly agree with what my hon. Friend says. However, the anecdote that he recounted was told us by our right hon. Friend the Minister. He told us that the two incidents occurred in the same restaurant, so it is not a question of national standards, and where the standards are set will not alter that fact. What is important is that an adequate standard is set for all environmental health officers to follow, wherever they are.

Photo of Mr Paul Marland Mr Paul Marland , Gloucestershire West

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He has put the position more clearly than I did.

I welcome the Bill. It is important to remember that it will not allow the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food automatically to introduce food irradiation. I hope that the passing of the Bill will reassure consumers about that and that people generally will become educated about irradiating food.

7 pm

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education), Chair of Communications, Liberal Democrat Party

The issue that we are debating has been in the public eye for a considerable time. Following the passage of the Food Act 1984, the then Minister issued a consultation paper for possible further legislation, but not until 30 October 1987 were the areas of such legislation identified.

It was all the more disappointing when, in July of last year, the resulting White Paper was issued, for it was almost devoid of content. It contained 68 pages of self-congratulation and only five pages of proposals. As I read it, I was not filled with optimism about what would be in the Bill that was to follow.

I confess that when the Bill appeared it was an improvement on the White Paper. I was surprised at that, because one would normally expect a White Paper to give an idea of what would be in a Bill. Nevertheless, although the measure is a great improvement over the White Paper, it does not go anything like far enough. The public were led to expect the Government to introduce a major measure in response to difficulties that had arisen, particularly over food poisoning.

The Bill contains only one fundamental flaw, and that has been the subject of most of the debate. It opens the way for food irradiation and for other new processes to be introduced, an issue to which I shall return. I wish first, however, to note some of the major elements of the Bill, many of which I welcome.

The Bill would revise the main offences in the existing Food Acts and would include the offence of supplying food that fails to comply with food safety requirements. The existing provisions relating to unfit food are unsatisfactory and the changes proposed by the Bill—removing the necessity to prove that food was intended to be sold for human consumption—are welcome.

The new power to detain suspect food for investigation, where one or more items in a batch has been proved to be unfit, is necessary, as is the introduction of rules that provide that, if one part of a batch fails to meet the requirements, the whole batch will be assumed not to meet the requirements. I am particularly concerned about that, following incidents in my constituency about a year ago involving imported Irish beef. Environmental health officers had to write off, in effect, whole batches, because of the quantities of unfit meat that were coming in. The meat processors put them under intense pressure not to take that action, but simply to go through each batch in detail. The Bill will represent a major improvement in such cases.

The changed prosecution procedures will enable enforcement to be more effective, and I welcome the fact that penalties are to be increased to more realistic levels, bearing in mind the sort of profits that unscrupulous people and organisations are able to make.

The registration of premises, however, is an area where the Government are falling short of what should be done. The introduction of registration represents only a bureaucratic step. By itself, it will achieve nothing, whatever the public might think about the need for premises to be registered. I shall table amendments to require the licensing of all food premises.

An interesting debate took place recently in the Committee that was considering an EC document entitled "Health Food Rules, Products and Animal Origins." That document appeared to drive a cart and horses through the Government's arguments in refusing to take action on licensing. Indeed, the Minister accepted during that discussion that much uncertainty existed about how the references concerned with registration should be understood, because they seemed to involve prior notification, in effect, licensing. I would welcome such a step, although there was much else in that EC document with which I disagreed.

Registration has the benefit of letting a local authority know what is happening so that it can check that food is being prepared and sold in a satisfactory manner, but only after the premises are open and operating. It would be more sensible for such observations to be made, through. licensing, in advance of premises opening. The local authority could then satisfy itself that the necessary health requirements would be met. That would enable unsuitable premises to be ruled out before they were opened. Licensing would also mean that premises that were continually proving to be a public health risk could lose their licences.

I worked for a time, after leaving school, in a restaurant. I am not aware of any problems that that establishment had in the preparation of food. It was probably much like any other restaurant—not perfect but not bad. Down the road was a so-called health food restaurant—purportedly selling the best of food—which regularly had enforcement action taken against it. It had appalling standards, but nothing much happened, apart from a continual process of minor offences receiving minor penalties. I am sure that, if the public had had any idea of what the trade was saying about that restaurant, or were aware of the action that the environmental health officers were regularly having to take, nobody would have eaten there. Without a licensing system, it was not possible properly to deal with that case.

The Richmond committee, which reported recently on the microbiological safety of food, said: As we have made clear in our letters to Ministers, we believe a system of formal licensing involving prior inspection should in due course be extended to a wide range of food operations. The Minister's reluctance to accept that does not accord with what the public expects. Ministers probably think that they can avoid taking such action because of the public belief that when we say we are introducing a system of registering food premises, that involves the licensing of premises. People think that before an operator can open for business, the establishment and its activities will be checked out. That is not the case.

I will not go in great detail into all the provisions of the Bill. I agree with the decision to widen the controls over contaminants and residues, and with the decision to allow Ministers to make emergency control orders. I am also glad to see some Crown exemptions being brought to an end. That will apply, for example, to prisons. I hope that it will apply equally to the House of Commons. I do not know whether any Duchy of Cornwall properties and tenancies are currently exempted. If they are, I hope that they, too, will no longer be exempted.

Although I welcome many of the Bill's provisions, can we be sure that they will be enforced? That brings us to the allocation of finance for enforcement, and the Minister spoke of £30 million being made available.

That sum is far from unwelcome but I am afraid that it is unlikely to be adequate. I agree that any debate on the subject is likely to be sterile: one side will say that it is adequate and the other will say that it is not and both sources of information—the Department and the local Authorities—have vested interests. It is difficult to be sure about the adequacy or otherwise of the figure. But I am very concerned and I know that those who will have to enforce it are very concerned.

I ask Ministers to ensure that adequate funding is provided in advance so that the Bill can be properly enforced from the word go as there will inevitably be a set-up cost. Something that may be found necessary in the long term may be missed at first and that can discredit the provisions that have been made. I do not want to argue about whether £30 million is enough or whether a further £10 million should be added, but I hope that Ministers will respond to the important need to ensure that adequate money is properly allocated in good time.

As I said, the Bill falls seriously short of what is required, and I should like to draw the attention of the House to many of the matters omitted from the Bill that the public could reasonably have expected from a food Bill so loudly trumpeted by the Government in advance of its publication. There is nothing in the Bill to encourage organic or less intensive farming. There is nothing on pesticide residues in food, although opinion polls have highlighted the fact that that is a matter of enormous concern to the general public. There is no national food policy on nutrition and diet, despite the known links between poor food and illness.

I feel particularly strongly about the fact that there are no measures to speed up reviews of older pesticides, many of which have been banned elsewhere but are still legal here and whose clearance data are still shrouded in secrecy. There are no measures to improve hygiene in abattoirs —a subject of which I have become especially aware through my work with local environmental health officers who have expressed their concern about BSE and cross-contamination that can arise from procedures in abattoirs and food processing plants. There are no proposals to label foods treated with pesticides or to itemise their saturated fat and sugar content. There is nothing to deal with new products such as so-called "superglue meat"—the blood enzyme products that may be coming into our shops later this year.

The Minister says that labelling is a matter for manufacturers in the first instance and for environmental health officers if the manufacturers do not proceed with it. But there is an enormous gap between the theory and the reality. Many of the descriptions that are used are all very well for those who are well-informed but they rarely meet the ordinary consumers' need to understand readily what they are purchasing and to decide what they want to avoid. There is no provision to eliminate unnecessary additives.

Finally, there is no intention to deal with a matter that could properly be dealt with in such a Bill—the labelling of animal feedstuffs. Farmers all round the country have expressed strong concern about the lack of labelling, but the Bill specifically excludes animal feedstuffs as food products, so none of its clauses will be relevant to them.

As I said at the start, the major issue in the debate has inevitably been food irradiation. I welcome the considerable concern that is evident on both sides of the House, although there are varying views on the extent to which that concern needs to be articulated and what action needs to be taken. No doubt we shall have an interesting debate on the subject in Committee. I welcome what the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), the Labour Front-Bench spokesman, said today, but I think that he will agree that what was said by Labour in the other place was by no means as forceful, which I found disappointing.

In the Lords, Labour failed to support an amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats to prevent the legalisation or irradiation until a diagnostic test had been established and an independent review had been carried out into the effects of irradiation on pesticide residues, vitamin content, food additives and food packaging. Speaking from the Labour Front Bench, Lord Gallagher said: My own view is that we can live with irradiation."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 January 1990; Vol. 514, c. 770.] That is not my view and it is not the view advanced by the hon. Member for South Shields today. I hope that we shall agree in Committee.

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

Perhaps it will help the hon. Gentleman if I give him a categorical assurance that the official Labour party line is that we oppose irradiation. We shall be fighting it tooth and nail and we shall welcome his support.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education), Chair of Communications, Liberal Democrat Party

I suspected that the Labour party's line would not be quite the same as that taken in the Lords, although I do not suggest that Labour entirely welcomed irradiation there. There was a difference of opinion and I am glad that we have been able to clear it up.

It is not only the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats who are opposed to irradiation. It is opposed by almost all retailers, by the environmental health officers, by the British Medical Association board of science, by the National Farmers Union, by the women's institutes and by all the major stores except Sainsbury's.

The Government argue that the World Health Organisation has cleared the process as safe but in the European documents the opposite view is adopted. The committee of experts had not considered the general safety aspects of the food irradiation process and it had not claimed that food irradiation was safe or that it had no harmful effects on human health.

That is what the European Parliament working document said. The Minister did not deny that; he merely argued that the WHO had backed the proposal. In Committee, the Minister will have to go into much more detail about what the WHO actually said. He will have to refer to the small print rather than giving us bland assurances. If it had been the other way round—if all the organisations to which I referred supported irradiation but the WHO opposed it—I doubt whether the Minister would have said, "We certainly cannot have it because, although there is so much support, the WHO has told us that we had better not introduce the proposal." The Minister has made a rather weak case in praying in aid the advice of that one organisation.

It is not merely a question whether we should allow food irradiation to go ahead. The words "food irradiation" do not appear in the Bill. I suspect that that is rather convenient. I suspect that Ministers were hoping that it would not be a subject for such lively debate here or in Committee. Worse still, clause 17 gives the Minister carte blanche to introduce any measures that he likes in respect of any new food process. The debate on food irradiation alone gives us ample reason not to accept the clause. We shall not have the opportunity to debate adequately other processes that may be developed even if they come under the public gaze to the same extent as food irradiation, because the Bill casts aside our powers to do that.

I regret that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did not stay beyond the first speech after his own. He was contemptuous and attacked those who oppose the process, including me, on the ground that we were denying choice to consumers. I have always been under the impression that when people say, "Choose your poison," they mean it figuratively and are not making a serious suggestion. I do not believe that the Minister would argue that line on any other process. It is just not the case that we allow people to choose their poison. We go to great lengths to ensure that products are safe before they go on sale and that we can check up on what manufacturers are doing.

The point made by several hon. Members that there is no way of finding out whether foods have been treated by irradiation is one of the major factors to which the Minister has so far failed to respond. He will have to come up with a much better explanation of how we can allow this to go through when there is no way of checking what procedures a particular food may have been subjected to under irradiation.

I would say also to those who argue that only good food can be irradiated that I am afraid they are wrong. Bad food should not be irradiated, but there is nothing to stop anyone doing it. One of the results of the irradiation process is to kill the bacteria that make it possible to tell that food has gone off. So irradiation can be used by the unscrupulous as a way of disguising bad food. Indeed, it is not uncommonly argued that that is precisely what happens at present: food that is produced in or shipped to this country is found to be going off, so is shipped to other countries for irradiation treatment and then brought back, when it is no longer possible to identify the problems that have occurred.

Photo of Mr David Ashby Mr David Ashby , North West Leicestershire

Is the hon. Gentleman able to define what he means when he talks about bad food? Surely, food that is not of a high quality and is irradiated does not become bad food; it is still edible, and, indeed, perfectly healthy to eat, but it will not taste very nice. Is not that the real point?

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education), Chair of Communications, Liberal Democrat Party

No. The real point is that irradiation can be used to kill the bacteria in food that tell us that food is going off. Irradiation can be used on food that is already beginning to go off.

Photo of Mr James Couchman Mr James Couchman , Gillingham

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that food that has deteriorated to the point at which it can be described as bad and which smells and tastes bad does not suddenly become good-tasting or good-smelling as a result of irradiation? The bad taste and the bad smell persist.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education), Chair of Communications, Liberal Democrat Party

The hon. Member is right, if the food is allowed to get to that point. I am arguing about what happens before that. There is common anecdotal evidence that this is already happening with food coming in from the continent that has been treated with irradiation precisely for this reason.

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen

One of the things about irradiation that disturbs me enormously is the idea that one can get rid of a food poisoning epidemic by using irradiation. Over half the cases of offal poisoning come from poultry and the idea is that poultry is irradiated to kill off the salmonella. This is a case, therefore, of making bad food good. Over half the poultry produced has salmonella, and it is a case of using two wrongs to make a right.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education), Chair of Communications, Liberal Democrat Party

My response to that is that I think that we will have an interesting debate in Committee. I certainly do not want to speak overlong now.

I refer finally to a subject that is not tackled in the Bill, but which I believe should be—that is, labelling and whether we are really making the public aware of the things of which they wish to be made aware. For example, if somebody goes to a shop and buys a product described as "strawberry flavour" and then buys another product described as "strawberry flavoured", he or she is buying two completely different things. One of them contains strawberries, although perhaps not many, and one does not.

I honestly do not believe that most people understand this. Looking at the way the products are dressed up to look wholesome and attractive and at their plastic packaging, it is clear that the food labelling laws that currently exist are not adequate. A similar thing could happen in future with blood enzyme meat products. I do not believe that the kind of labelling that has been mentioned would adequately tell customers what they are getting.

I argue that, for all those reasons, the Bill is imperfect —not because, with the one exception of irradiation, it by and large does things that it should not do, but because it simply does not do the things that it should. It is inadequate. There will not be a vote against it tonight, I suspect, because there is not much in it to vote against, but in Committee there will, I think, be long and hard debate in an attempt to put into the Bill the kind of teeth that it should have had from the start.

Photo of Mr Conal Gregory Mr Conal Gregory , City of York 7:25 pm, 8th March 1990

A nation can be judged in various ways, but it surely owes two vital duties to its citizens: first, to ensure that they are properly nourished; and, secondly, to safeguard them with adequate defences. The Bill is concerned with the first of those duties and is to be warmly welcomed. Good food hygiene is vital and if we are here giving legislative teeth to a framework which should last for many years, it is the Conservatives who have not flinched from ensuring better food standards.

The Bill revises the offences, modernises the statutory defences, imposes higher penalties for offenders, strengthens the powers of enforcement officers, introduces improvement notices and provides for the training of food handlers. It will give the Government greater control over contaminants and residues, as well as new technological advances.

Although the fermented grape may be only peripheral to the Bill, I declare a possible interest as a master of wine by examination.

Good food is intrinsically linked with good health and it must be a constant source of embarrassment to the Labour party to have let the British public down when in Government. Today we have more than 70,000 more nurses and 14,000 more doctors in our National Health Service and spending is set to rise by some £2,400 million in 1990–91, which means that NHS expenditure will have increased by more than 45 per cent. in real terms on Labour's last year, 1978–79.

Just as the Labour Government neglected health care, so they gave no attention to the important matter of food control. The Conservatives have accepted that challenge, and the Bill is the result. It is substantial, as it will replace the existing food legislation in England, Wales and Scotland with one statute to cover Great Britain.

The Bill provides, I believe, a good balance between the interests of the consumer and those of fair trade. Overall, public confidence in the food chain from the farm to the shop will be boosted. Already we are seeing good initiatives at the regional level. I draw attention to the Association of North Yorkshire Food and Drink Producers, which uses the slogan "The Yorkshire Pantry" and has already held two food hygiene forums which have brought together representatives from the independent and multiple retail sectors, the licensed catering trade and environmental health. The association is rightly concerned that legislation should be uniformly applied, with no loopholes for the unscrupulous trader.

Some members of the public have been destabilised by certain academics with very sketchy research. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) was right to draw that to our attention. This is in stark contrast with proper research and communication based on solid documentation. It will be interesting to see how far the Opposition use that sketchy research from those quasi-academics in pursuing certain arguments. In this context, I commend the free food-line service provided by the food safety advisory centre, which has already received more than 8,000 calls.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us who the quasi-academics are, so that we have the information on the record. Their assertions can then be determined with certainty at later stages in the consideration of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Conal Gregory Mr Conal Gregory , City of York

Both sides of the House will expect arguments to be substantiated. The hon. Gentleman and I are both entitled to make claims. I am sure that he will produce evidence, including research sources, to support his claims. We shall then be able to judge them accordingly. I shall be happy to be part of that process.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Conal Gregory Mr Conal Gregory , City of York

In this year alone——

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Conal Gregory Mr Conal Gregory , City of York

I have dealt adequately with the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I can see that the Opposition are embarrassed by their use in the past of certain quasi-academics. We shall see whether they still rely upon them.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Mr Conal Gregory Mr Conal Gregory , City of York

I wish to refer to the amount of food safety research that is undertaken.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When hon. Members wish to produce arguments for debate——

Photo of Mr Keith Raffan Mr Keith Raffan , Delyn

That is not a point of order.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

I am being barracked from a sedentary position, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I suggest that whether I am raising a point of order rests with you, not with Conservative Members.

If arguments are advanced in debate, and especially when hon. Members ask who has made the unsubstantiated claims and for evidence to be produced, is there not a clear responsibility for the hon. Member who has put them forward to produce his evidence?

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Woodspring

That is a matter for debate, not a point of order.

Photo of Mr Conal Gregory Mr Conal Gregory , City of York

After that unnecessary intervention from the hon. Gentleman, I will try to make some progress. Despite the sparsity of Opposition Members in the Chamber, many of my hon. Friends wish to contribute to the debate.

This year alone, the Government are spending £8·5 million on food safety research. There have been no cuts —indeed, extra cash has been provided. There has been an increase in provision of £500,000 on last year.

Right hon. and hon. Members have referred to irradiation. I do not wish to take up too much time on that, but irradiation is not a new form of food preservation which has arrived in the past few weeks or months—it was introduced about 80 years ago. I understand that it is permitted in 35 countries world-wide and in use in 21 of them, including four member states of the European Community and the United States of America.

The case for irradiation has not yet been well made out, as my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) said at some length. We know that the process reduces some vitamins in food, especially vitamins A and B, thiamin, pyridoxine and ascorbic acid. The changes caused by food irradiation, however, are extremely small.

It is important—this has always been recognised by Conservatives—that there should be choice in food. Accordingly, if irradiation will increase our choice, I am in favour of it. I accept that the present system for handling herbs and spices is not satisfactory, and that is one of the cases for irradiation.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take up a worry which has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is felt that there should be a test to determine whether a food has been subject to irradiation, and that should be dealt with before we can consider legalising that food.

Any system of control relies ultimately on the vigilance of enforcement officers and on adequate penalties. Some local authorities have not given adequate priority to those important considerations. I am delighted that extra resources of £30 million annually are to be provided out of central finance. That should ensure that extra enforcement officers can be employed.

In November, the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, on whom enforcement of the Bill largely falls, reported 418 vacancies in England, Wales and Ulster. That fact was pointed out by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). The figure means that, nationally, one in eight posts were unfilled. The major reason for the manpower shortage lies with education—there are not enough training places at our polytechnics.

I understand that there are two methods of becoming a qualified environmental health officer. The first involves taking a degree in environmental health, which is a four-year course. The first two years are spent at a polytechnic, followed by one year with a local authority and a final year at a polytechnic. The other method involves a diploma in environmental health undertaken through a local authority by day release and/or block release. Too few individuals are able to undertake such a course due to lack of sponsorship by local authorities.

In York, for example, the nearest course was at Hull. That course is no longer available. Accordingly, a good and experienced chief environmental health officer, such as I have in York in the form of Trevor Phillips, is thus unable to sponsor young people because of the distances involved. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to hold urgent discussions with the polytechnics so that the number of posts can be increased. We must ensure that central Government funds are channelled in the right direction.

Anyone who reads the Bill will be aware of the importance of registration or licensing. The Bill provides for the registration of food premises and for such premises to be closed down immediately if public health is at risk. That is a balanced approach and the right way forward. One can imagine the power which could otherwise be given to a local authority to licence willy-nilly. Such power could easily be abused. A local authority could arbitrarily dictate how many Chinese restaurants or Indian takeaways should be allowed to trade instead of allowing the public to decide.

Licensing in such circumstances could easily be misapplied. If we had had such a system in the past in York, only one confectionery company might have been considered adequate. I am pleased to say that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was no such red tape. Had such a system existed, it would have stopped the development of Craven, Rowntree and Terry. I am glad to know that similar initiatives in future will not be stifled in their infancy.

The EHO must be informed that a food-related business is to start operating. He can then visit the premises and judge the level of risk. It is clear that a rnajor supermarket selling preserved foods needs fewer visits than a street trader. Products such as ice cream and milk deserve special attention.

Good food handlers employ and train staff to understand hygienic practices. I hope that local colleges will develop and extend their courses to cater for that need, if they are not doing so already. In some authorities, the EHO runs a food hygiene course. Three such courses are run by the Yorkshire EHO.

Better food hygiene should mean the separation of cooked and uncooked meats and the assurance that coins are not handled by the same unprotected hands which served the food. I believe that a person prosecuted for that practice should be disqualified for two years from operating the premises and that the technical move of having the business transferred to the spouse's name should be prevented. That is a problem in areas such as west Yorkshire where, with a large Indian ethnic community, the male is dominant in catering and other businesses. If he is found guilty of an offence and the business is transferred to the name of his spouse, that does not mean that she has the time and management skills to run it properly—it just means that there is a different name on the business notepaper.

If an EHO is worried about food control, he needs the power to act quickly. By virtue of clause 12, the Bill provides for emergency prohibition where there is an imminent risk to health, and clause 13 provides powers to make emergency control orders.

I believe in the carrot rather than the stick. Food retailers who are noted for care will attract good custom. The stick is the penalty of fines of up to £20,000 plus six months' imprisonment on conviction in a magistrates court, or unlimited fines or two years' imprisonment following conviction on indictment. There will be a tenfold increase in the present fine for selling unsafe food.

It is right that we consider the legal concept of due diligence, which will be extended to anyone selling food. This means that shops, supermarkets and restaurants will have to take all reasonable precautions to ensure that the food that they are providing is safe. The Bill will not allow them to escape prosecution merely by blaming their suppliers. We should realise that the new powers will substantially increase the burden on retailers, but it is essential that the definition of due diligence in clause 22 should remain unaltered.

I am concerned that there is no mechanism for public complaints. It is important that in any prosecution there is early disclosure of evidence. I recently heard of a peice of glass being found in a packet of soup. The prosecuting authority would not reveal that evidence to the company concerned. It was only when the company guaranteed to pay for an independent analysis that it became clear that the glass could not have originated in the company but came from the bowl in which the soup had been cooked.

I am also concerned that there is no appeal against condemnation by a justice of the peace. That was considered in the other place and the Minister suggested that judicial review was the answer. I hope that that will not be the answer when we consider this subsequently, because it is inadequate.

I welcome the Bill. It is tough. I urge the Opposition not to unpick it, because it strikes the right balance between the worlds of commerce and of the consumer.

Photo of Ms Audrey Wise Ms Audrey Wise , Preston 7:40 pm, 8th March 1990

I share the view expressed already by many hon. Members that there are huge gaps in the Bill. I noticed with interest that the Minister talked about the whole food chain, but the Bill does not cover that, as has been pointed out. That would not matter so much if the food chain was being dealt with adequately in other ways, but that is not so. There is more to food safety than food poisoning, such as salmonella, important though that is. Food safety is a much wider issue.

For example, many parents changed to giving their children apple juice rather than the sugar or sweetener laden squashes. Then, to their horror, they learned about alar, the growth retardant chemical which interfered grossly with the growth of apples. It went right into the cells and could not be washed off. The healthy juice that they thought that they were giving their children was open to doubt. They got no protection from the Government on that matter, even though that substance was banned as carcinogenic in the United States and even though the manufacturers themselves have ceased to manufacture it. The Government have simply gone on saying, "Don't worry; it's safe." That kind of thing does more to alarm people who are interested in their food than many other utterances. Such experiences bring the wholesomeness of our food into question.

When the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was challenged on television about a vet's comments that cows infected with mad cow disease but undiagnosed as such could be getting into the slaughterhouses and into the food chain, his comment was, "So what?" Then he said, "Oh well, we rip out all the central nervous system." An environmental health officer then pointed out that it is impossible to guarantee that all the dangerous organs would be ripped out of an animal in that way. But all we got from the Minister was, "So what?" Many people watching him on television would have had their confidence in his Department, if they had any, gravely shaken.

There have been some attempts in the other place to improve the Bill. There was an attempt to amend the Bill, requiring food that had been subject to spraying to be labelled. Food may be sprayed as many as 40 times, but that amendment got short shrift. There was an attempt to ensure that alcoholic drinks should not be exempt from proper labelling, but the Government spokeswoman said that such detail was inappropriate in the Bill. The alcoholic drinks industry is large and not many people would regard it as a detail.

A noble Lord tried to introduce an amendment about mechanically recovered meat, so that food being presented as containing meat when it really contained mechanically recovered meat would be labelled as such. Again, the Government spokeswoman said that once again she believed that that kind of detail was inappropriate to the Bill. When further pressed on both those matters, she hid behind EEC regulations. That is grossly inadequate.

I am worried about the inadequacies of the Bill, but I am even more worried about funding. The figure of £30 million has been put forward and the hon. Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) referred to £30 million being dedicated to dealing with the matter. It is one thing to say, as the explanatory and financial memorandum does,: The additional cost for local authorities is likely to be of the order of £30 million a year from 1991–1992 onwards. This will be taken into account in next year's Revenue Support Grant Settlement", but that is far from a guarantee of real money. If that sum is taken into account and at the same time there is an underestimate of inflation, such as we have seen this year, and local authorities are underfunded to the tune of £3 billion, £30 million will not go far among local authorities to fund this or any other of their functions.

Lancashire county council has been deprived of £168 million. If we add to that the amount of which district councils have been deprived, simply by sharp practice in reckoning—underestimating for inflation—neither my constituents nor the people who will be responsible for reinforcement will be impressed by being told that £30 million is being taken into account. It might mean that they lose a few thousand pounds less next year, but not that real extra money is granted to them. Unfortunately, it is real extra money that will be required to pay the salaries of the extra environmental health officers who will be required.

The funding arrangements are grossly inadequate. I do not understand why there cannot be some earmarking. I do not understand why local authorities cannot be guaranteed a real and identifiable extra sum in order to meet the responsibilities that are now being placed on them. I fear that we shall be treated to a great deal of fiction in this matter which will not help local authorities to enforce the new legislation.

I said that there is a great deal more to food safety than food poisoning, such as salmonella or listeria, and that is true, Nevertheless, those are important matters. The most important contribution that can be made for the prevention, for example, listeria, is proper temperature control of food by retailers and in the home and the Select Committee on Social Services made some recommendations on that. They were straightforward recommendations—nothing elaborate, such as food irradiation. They were recommendations about which there could be no controversy about their safety. For instance, it was recommended that retailers should have integral and visible thermometers in refrigerators containing cook-chill food. We made that recommendation last June. Surely one would have thought that the Government would simply have said that that was a good recommendation. But they did not.

We had a contorted bit of evidence when we subsequently interviewed the principal in the health service division of the Department of Health. We asked whether the new food and hygiene regulations would require retailers to have refrigeration equipment fitted with thermometers. He told us: to comply with the regulations clearly a thermometer will be required … There may not in fact, in the regulations be a requirement to actually provide a thermometer, but the mere fact that to comply with the regulations they need a thermometer is sufficient in legal terms for it to be provided. Hon. Members will not be surprised that the Select Committee's response to that was that, although it might be sufficient in legal terms, it would produce total confusion among producers, retailers and consumers.

If the Government want temperature control in cabinets, they should make a requirement that there should be integral and visible thermometers. It would be fairer to retailers and consumers, and to shop workers, who could then monitor properly the foods under their care as they might well be blamed for any bad handling. Yet the Government will not simply say, "Yes. Let's do it."

There has been similar equivocation on other recommendations. That alone is sufficient to justify our great scepticism that the Government, who are so keen to introduce irradiation, are simply doing that because they are keen on safe food. Otherwise, good hygiene would be at the top of the list of their requirements.

Many hon. Members have made good points about the subject of irradiated food and I do not intend to repeat them. However, the chief medical officer mentioned an important matter to the Select Committee last June. He told us that he believed that food irradiation should be given further consideration, but he pointed out that various safeguards would need to be developed to ensure that it was not abused. He said: it is necessary for us to develop detection procedures so that it is not possible for a person producing food to irradiate food twice—to do it once, render it sterile and then when it gets to the expiry date to do it again. The chief medical officer said that last June, but no tests are yet available which can identify food which has been irradiated once, let alone twice. To those Conservative Members who think that there is virtually no difference in the food after it has been irradiated, all I can say is that their idea of a scientific approach is sadly misplaced. The fact that it is not possible to have reliable, cheap and available tests—for example, chemical tests—to identify irradiated food does not mean that the food has the same biological nature as it had before it was irradiated. We know that irradiation causes changes in the food, but we do not fully know the significance of those changes for human health.

The Minister said in his speech that it will be safer to allow irradiation because, as long as we do not allow it, irradiated food will be, as he put it, sneaked in. What confidence can we have in the food manufacturing and importing trades if that is the kind of thing they will get up to, if they will break the law by sneaking in irradiated food when it is clearly banned? It is precisely those manufacturers and importers—whom the Secretary of State invites us to distrust so much at present—whose willingness and ability to label with total accuracy we would have to rely on. I could have no confidence in that.

We have heard about the broad alliance of people who are opposing food irradiation. It includes most of the big retailing chains—all but one, I think. It includes those who earn their living from marketing fresh produce and foods, and I do not believe that it is accidental that they are so hostile to irradiation. They recognise that there is likely to be a consumer boycott of their products if irradiation is given the go-ahead and if people lose confidence. We have all seen on television the signs on doors of shops in the United States saying, "No irradiated foods here". That is because they know that they have to retain people's confidence if they want to keep their custom.

Conservative Members have used a childish argument to challenge the notion that bad food cannot be made to seem safe. They have said that bad food tastes and smells bad. The hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) said that, but he is not in the Chamber at present. Perhaps if the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) had used the term "dangerous food" rather than "bad food", it would have been more clearly understood. Food can be extremely dangerous and taste quite normal. If that was not the case, we would not have any food poisoning because people would take one bite and put their knives and forks away. We do not know whether food is germ laden until we get diarrhoea, or whatever.

Food could be laden with organisms and then apparently made sterile by irradiation, but that does not remove the poisons and the toxins that the organisms have generated within the food, and it does not prevent it from becoming reinfected. It is a con to persuade people to part with hard-earned money to make profits for unscrupulous traders.

I am pleased that traders and supermarket chains in this country are showing resistance to irradiation. They are showing more confidence in their own products than the Government are, and that is the one thing in this whole saga which gives me any hope whatsoever.

Therefore, although the Bill takes some steps and fills in some of the gaps, it is hopelessly inadequate and leaves people undefended against the huge changes in technology which have taken place in agriculture and food processing, and which are making our food less wholesome than it was, and reducing its quality.

If the Government really want people to feel confident that food is wholesome, they will bring forward not only this Bill, but another one which will take in the whole food chain and which will deal with the deplorable way in which animals are raised and our land is treated. If the Government start there, they may produce a Bill which protects food quality. If the Bill deals with all the other things that we have pointed out, it may deal with food safety adequately.

Whereas we mostly get legislation which is uniformly horrific from the Government, the best thing about this Bill is that it takes some small steps in the right direction. That is very faint praise indeed, and it is intended as such.

Photo of Mr Simon Coombs Mr Simon Coombs , Swindon 7:58 pm, 8th March 1990

I speak as the chairman of the all-party food and health forum, which has conducted a dialogue with many interested parties in the food industry about food and health, diet and nutrition, and which has recognised public concern following recent outbreaks of food poisoning.

This is a good time for us to examine the broader context of the events that have led to the introduction of the Bill. I welcome it: I think that it takes some important steps, and I do not share the dismal forebodings of some Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise). The "due diligence" defence in clause 22 and the general safety requirement in clause 8 between them will, I believe, make for a balanced approach that will ensure consumer safety.

I also welcome the statement by my right hon. Friend the Minister that he intends to widen the role of consumers in consultations on food safety matters. I have wondered for a long time why there is no place for a consumer representative on Government committees such as the committee on toxicity and the advisory committee on novel foods and processes. I wonder, also, why so many of those committees require the imposition of the Official Secrets Act on their members to ensure their smooth operation. I hope that my right hon. Friend's statement signals his recognition that consumers and their organisations can play a major role.

I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend say that resources would be made available to enforce the greater rigour that is implicit in the Bill. I was interested, however, by the complaints of Opposition Members that £30 million was too little, and that the money was not earmarked for what they considered the most suitable purposes. I hope that, when he replies, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health will explain whether the reference in clause 6 to Ministers' right to take over the responsibility of enforcement from local authorities extends to those authorities that are clearly falling down in their duties.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), who has left the Chamber, spoke of the importance of speedy action to provide the necessary extra resources and the environmental health officers to ensure that the new, more rigorous framework is effective. There is a risk that the shortfall will not be tackled in time, and I urge my hon. Friend to take account of that and act promptly. We need the resources to cope with both registration and inspection of new food premises. Although I do not go as far as some Opposition Members who have suggested that licensing would be preferable to registration, I believe that a registration system must be backed up with sufficient resources for the immediate inspection of new premises. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to convince the House—and, in due course, the Committee—that he recognises the validity of that suggestion.

One of the key provisions is in schedule 1, which deals with training. We might accept that, however much we legislate, we shall always be bedevilled by human error. None of us is perfect; we all slip up from time to time. We can overcome the worst effects of that, however, by ensuring that good training is given to those whose work involves any part of the food chain.

Food safety requires not just the training of others, but self-regulation and self-discipline. We cannot legislate for what happens in the homes of our fellow citizens, but we can exhort them to read the advisory material that is widely available, and to recognise that they are at the end of the food chain—the point of consumption. They are just as capable—some would say more so—of adulterating food in the process of cooking and serving as is anyone involved with an earlier link on the chain.

Clear labelling of food, with which clause 17 is concerned, is crucial, not only in connection with irradiation but because it promotes healthy eating. I warmly welcome the progress now being made towards European harmonisation: the EC agreement of 22 December 1989, to which my right hon. Friend referred, was an important step forward. The Government must now act quickly to ensure that we are in the vanguard of the introduction of clear product labelling. Too many of us eat and drink our way to premature death or crippling disease; we owe it to our fellow citizens to give them every opportunity and encouragement to avoid such a fate.

The Bill, and the regulations that will depend on it, must make allowance for novel foods. The other place added to the definition of food in clause 1 articles and substances of no nutritional value". What is the Government's attitude to substances such as Olestra, which have no nutritional value but which have dietary value in reducing the ingestion of other unhealthy ingredients? Food technology is moving on all the time, and we must be able to respond to its challenges quickly.

Obviously, it is impossible for us to avoid referring to food irradiation. Here I must declare not a personal but a constituency interest, in that my constituency contains one of the foremost companies involved in the irradiation of products for which the process is now legal—Isotron. I do not speak on its behalf, however; my point is that the case for food irradiation has been made extremely well by organisations throughout the world.

I have had an early opportunity to read a leaflet that is shortly to be published by the Food Safety Advisory Centre, which states: The weight of scientific opinion considers food irradiation to be a safe process, and another useful tool for protecting our food. It is not a panacea, and will not eradicate all bacteria by itself. Food irradiation is to be seen as a partner with good manufacturing practice, good hygiene, packaging and temperature control.Irradiation has been studied since 1905, and no other food processing method has been subject to such close examination for so many years. Whilst some individual scientists may have reservations, the weight of scientific opinion agree this to be a safe process.Food irradiation has been accepted by the World Health Organisation since 1961, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, and International Atomic Energy Agency who evaluated the process and their Joint Expert Committee on Food Irradiation declared that the use of food irradiation up to a specific dose of 10kGy is a safe process (when applied at recommended doses). In the United Kingdom the Advisory Committee on Irradiated and Novel Foods reported in 1986 that food irradiation is a safe process, presenting no toxicological hazard and introducing no special nutritional or microbiological problem. I could not have put it better myself.

I hope that we shall not reach the point in this and subsequent debates where we say to those who are hostile to food irradiation that we shall allow irradiated food to be labelled because that will give people the chance to avoid eating such food. I hope that the Government will say that there is a case for food irradiation, that irradiated food is safe to eat and that people who wish to eat safe food should seek out those foods that are labelled as having been irradiated and enjoy eating them.

I hope that, as the months and years go by, the general public will overcome their understandable nervousness in the face of so much hostile propaganda from the Opposition and others. I hope that in due course we shall take the same relaxed view about food irradiation as we now take about the motor car. Is not it significant that the Labour party's emblem is the same red flag as was paraded in years gone by in front of every motor car? We have moved on from those days. I believe that in a few years' time, we shall have moved on from this unnecessary concern about food irradiation.

We have to work within the European context on food safety, but the United Kingdom can and ought to lead the way by responding to the problems and embracing new technologies. The Bill will help that process. I wish it well.

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew , Carlisle 8:12 pm, 8th March 1990

I was looking forward to a factual and enlightening debate. Then the Minister spoke. I was amazed to hear him say that pasteurised milk is so safe that we do not need to say on the milk top that the milk is pasteurised. That is not true. If a housewife picks up a bottle of milk and looks at the top, she sees, "Pasteurised." A cream carton also says that the cream inside is pasteurised. That shows the amount of ignorance on the Conservative Benches. It worries me.

I welcome the Bill. It is much delayed; it ought to have been introduced six years ago. I am sure we shall debate that matter in Committee. The Bill is greatly flawed and I should like to deal in detail with why that is so, but that would upset hon. Members because we are short of time.

The Bill is needed because food-borne illness has quadrupled during the last 10 years. I refer to food-borne illness rather than to food poisoning. Government statistics also do not cover those who are poisoned by eating food. They cover salmonella and a few other small infections that cause food poisoning. They do not cover campylobacter, which causes 40,000 cases a year, and was discovered only in 1976 to be a food poisoning organism. However, the Government do not class such cases as food poisoning. The statistics also do not cover listeria, so I hope that the Government will change their compilation of the statistics and include food-borne diseases.

When all the figures are put together, there were 80,000 reported cases of people being made ill last year by eating food. If for every reported case, 10 go undetected, that means that there must be at least 800,000 cases of food poisoning a year. That is serious. I accept that the deaths that occur as a result of food poisoning are reported. Fortunately, there are only between 100 and 200 such deaths each year, but that is too many. Some of those deaths are due to the Government not having taken any action before now.

As for campylobacter, the Richmond report and the letter sent to the Minister in response to the then proposal to ban the sale of raw milk—or what is called green top milk—stated in no uncertain terms that 80 per cent. of campylobacter outbreaks are caused by raw milk, although only 3 per cent. of all milk is classed as raw milk. The report also says that, during the last 10 years, 13 people have died as a result of drinking green top milk.

Have the Government banned the sale of green top milk? No, they have promoted it. In September of this year, there will be new labelling. The industry will be placing a health warning on cartons or bottles of raw milk. They will carry the warning, "This milk can be dangerous." I know of only one other example of a health warning—that on packets of cigarettes. The only difference between cigarettes and green top milk is that cigarettes cannot be bought by children. However, the Government will allow milk that is potentially dangerous, especially to children, to be sold on the open market.

In March last year the Government said that they would ban the sale of raw milk, but they have changed their mind as a result of pressure from the farming community. The Government capitulated. That is a disgrace.

The Bill will provide the Minister with many powers. If the Minister is prepared to allow the sale of raw milk, how can we trust him to look after the nation's health and food safety?

There has been a major Government cover-up over contamination by listeria. We are also discussing in the debate the sixth report of the Social Services Committee "Food Poisoning: Listeria and Listeriosis." According to the chief medical officer of health's written evidence, outbreaks of listeriosis have killed people in Boston, Los Angeles, Switzerland and France. Nowhere in that evidence does he mention that there was an outbreak in this country in 1981. Only when he was pressed in Committee by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) did he say that there was probably an outbreak in Cumbria.

There was an outbreak in my constituency in 1981. Eleven people suffered from listeriosis and there were six deaths, which included four infants and two adults. The Government have never published that information, because they took no action on it. There has been action on listeriosis only during the last three years. However, the Government knew in 1981 that there was a problem.

Statistical evidence proved that people had been infected by pasteurised cream sold by a leading store. The cream had come not from a local farm but from a national supplier. Although the blame cannot be put on the store or the local suppliers, the fact is that six people died in that outbreak. The Government did nothing about it; they did not even publish their findings. Page 134 of the Richmond report referred very casually to a cluster of eleven cases in Cumbria in 1981 suggested the possibility that they may have been associated with cream. Nowhere do the Government say that there were any deaths. Only now is the truth emerging.

I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for Health is replying to the debate. Perhaps he will tell us, first., why that information was never supplied; secondly, what action the Government took to investigate the problem; and, thirdly, why under this Bill the same cloak of secrecy will stop the relevant authorities making such information available to the public. It is important that the public know about the problems involving food poisoning. The reason we know about cases in Switzerland, America and France is that their Governments tell us. Our Government hide everything behind a cloak of secrecy. I hope that the Bill will be amended to make sure that that is not the case in future.

I worry about the Bill and the people who will administer it. The Bill is necessary, but it will be in safe hands only when we have a Labour Minister to administer it.

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill , Ludlow 8:20 pm, 8th March 1990

I wish to declare a financial interest in the food industry and, like all responsible people employed in the food industry, I have a big vested interest in food safety. The fact that there are so many people in the food industry with a vested interest in food safety is one of the greatest guarantees that the public have of the protection of their health and the food that they eat. It is a simple commercial fact that, if we poison our customers, we lose our businesses, so we have an enormous incentive to ensure that the food industry is safe and produces wholesome food.

I venture to suggest that we in Britain are lucky to be able to discuss food safety. There are millions of people in the world who would prefer to discuss the question of their next meal. It is a great luxury that we can spend time talking about the quality, the standard and the wholesomeness of our food because of the abundance of food we enjoy, and let us thank God for that.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on introducing a sensible and workmanlike measure. To my mind, there is nothing in the Bill to which any responsible person working in any area of food handling could possibly take exception.

Hon. Members have suggested reasons why the Food Safety Bill has been brought forward now. The low level of knowledge and understanding which exists among many sections of the British public has already been mentioned. I shall elaborate by saying that that low level of knowledge and understanding extends through the storage and handling of food to the preparation and cooking of food. If anything, it is the result of our modern living patterns. The housewife today is looking for something convenient and instant in which she does not have to get too involved. Lest I be accused by the hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) of being sexist, the same applies to men involved in the culinary arts.

My right hon. Friend the Minister referred to the standards operated by local authorities. In commercial terms, that means that a company operating under the jurisdiction of a local authority which enforces standards rigorously is put to more expense and is thus at a competitive disadvantage compared with others in areas where the local authorities take a more relaxed view and do not enforce standards as they should. My right hon. Friend pointed out the need for greater similarity between the actions and mechanisms of local authorities. I am sure that that is right and I am convinced that if uniform standards are enforced across the entire country, the long-term effect will be to ratchet up standards in all aspects of food production, retailing and consumption.

Today's debate has centred to a greater or lesser extent on the dichotomy between those of us who would prefer the registration of food premises and those who would go further and require the licensing of all food premises. Hon. Members will not be surprised that I favour registration as the correct measure to take. It is no longer sufficient or adequate that we do not necessarily know who is involved in food handling and where they are. The register will provide that essential information so that in future we shall know who is handling our food and where they are.

That is not the same as licensing, nor is it intended to be. Our philosophy is to treat people as responsible individuals. We recognise that the majority of people, given that responsibility, will behave in a responsible fashion. I realise that there will be rogues in the food industry, as there are in all walks of life, but one of the essential features of the Bill is that it spells out a tariff of penalties for non-compliance. I do not think that anyone in the House today will argue that that tariff should not be rigorously enforced.

The food industry is perforce highly labour-intensive. It is a people industry. We cannot expect to achieve 100 per cent. satisfaction by standing over everyone involved in the food process to see that they do the job correctly. We depend on individual responsibility. There are many welcome examples of the entire food industry trying harder to police itself. There are several successful self-regulation schemes where industries are deciding in advance of Government legislation to take the bull by the horns and to set standards acceptable to the general public and to the Government.

The food industry and other industries have seen the introduction of the individual operative as the quality controller. Industry in general is moving away from the era when another person stood over the operative to make sure that the job was done properly. Now the operative is his own quality controller. That is most commendable and certainly in tune with the philosophy of the Government who want to inculcate individual responsibility.

The mention of training in the Bill is very welcome. I foresee enormous problems for the food industry. I mention just one or two concerns. People working in certain sectors of the food industry tend to be peripatetic and there is a high turnover of staff. That may have something to do with the low pay which is traditional in that industry. That could present difficulties in making people available for training, but I am optimistic enough to believe that the Bill will go a long way to improve matters in the very important area of training.

I want to say a word or two about inspection. It is impossible to believe that we shall ever get 100 per cent. supervision, 100 per cent. inspection, or 100 per cent. food safety. In my opinion, the inspectors, rather than congregating in offices attempting to license premises, must be out in the field inspecting. As a result of the register which will be available to them, they will be able to identify high-risk establishments. They must concentrate their efforts there, and use all the powers and resources available to them to raise standards. In that context, we must not forget the hazards ever present and ever prevalent in catering and domestic kitchens. I believe that the good Lord provides the food and the devil sends the cooks. We must ensure, so far as possible, that inspection homes in on problems of that sort.

As practically every hon. Member who has spoken has referred to irradiation, I shall deal with it only briefly. In any case, I have already made two speeches in this Chamber in favour of irradiation. The reason for the subject being raised so often here currently is that it is such an emotive issue. There are genuine and recognisable fears, born of a lack of knowledge. I, for one, am prepared to put my faith in the scientific knowledge that is available and to follow the Government down this road. All food preservation depends on arresting the rate of spoilage, whether by curing or salting, which goes back centuries, by canning, by freezing, by dehydrating or, nowadays, by irradiation. It is not a matter of making bad food good —it is a matter of arresting the rate of spoilage. One cannot reverse the process of putrefaction.

The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), whom I invariably mention in debates of this kind, talked about consumerism. I was going to congratulate him on having been converted to consumerism, until he made his pronouncement on irradiation, saying that he and his party would fight tooth and nail against it. By doing that, they will deny the consumer the choice in which I and my party most passionately believe.

Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones , Clwyd South West 8:31 pm, 8th March 1990

This legislation is long overdue. It has been in gestation for six years, which is considerably longer than the gestation period of an elephant. During that time, we have seen a huge increase in food-borne illness. We have heard about salmonella, but there are also campylobacter, listeria, rotavirus and clostridium, the incidence of all of which has increased, especially in the last three or four years. So the Bill is too late, and it could also be said that it is too little. The enforcement provisions are much improved. The higher penalties and strengthened powers for enforcement officers are a great improvement. But will there be officers to use those powers? Will the £30 million that has been promised materialise, and will it be enough? I doubt it.

I have grave doubts that the mere registration of food outlets will be sufficient. Could it be that this approach has been chosen because if licensing prior to opening were used there would not be sufficient environmental health officers to cope with licensing? And would registration merely serve to mask the continuation of the existing inadequate provision? I suspect so.

If the Bill is not amended, there will be an order-making power to license certain food businesses—for example, dairies and irradiation businesses. The Minister said of such irradiation—I quote as closely as possible—"Radiation causes so little change that it is undetectable, but it is considered dangerous because of those changes." If I heard the Minister aright, either he has no knowledge of the subject or he is misleading the House. He should know that the changes caused by irradiation are sometimes extremely detectable in certain foods by organoleptic methods—"organoleptic" being a big word for "by taste and smell".

For example, eggs are rendered totally inedible by irradiation. The fact that other foods do not taste bad after irradiation does not mean that radiolytic products are not present and are not potentially harmful. As the Minister should know, pasteurisation is quite different. That process is testable because the numbers and types of organisms left by it are detectable. In addition, in the case of milk there are simple tests—for example, the phosphatase test.

There are other possible dangers. We do not know what effects radiation has on food additives, contaminants, pesticides or packaging materials. With all these question marks over the process, we might ask who needs it. There is no discernible consumer demand. I do not believe that that is due to ignorance. In fact, those consumers who know more about the process are the ones who are more inclined to reject it.

We must therefore deduce that it is the producers who require it. But why? It is not a cure-all for food-borne illness. Most outbreaks of food poisoning have been related to eggs, pate and soft cheese, none of which can be irradiated, for the very good reason that I mentioned earlier—because they taste dreadful after irradiation. Botulism is resistant to radiation because it is a spore-bearing organism. But in the case of those organisms and foods for which irradiation can be used, often not all the organisms are killed. Quite a number of organisms are left and are able to compete in a freer atmosphere, not in competition with the less damaging organisms that are already there. Of course, toxins also survive irradiation.

It cannot be sensible to introduce a process with so many potential dangers, and with the added danger that it would be treated by producers as a cleaning-up operation at the end of a dirty operation. I hope that this is not the real reason for introducing the irradiation of food, but I suspect that it is.

Clause 26 provides for sampling from businesses. But how useful this can be if there is no test for irradiation, and how on earth the labelling of irradiated food can be enforced in cafes and restaurants if there is no test escapes me.

Lastly, why is there no general-duty requirement in the Bill? Other recent consumer protection legislation has had this standard provision, and the draft European Commission product directive imposes a much wider safety duty that takes account of the intended use, consumption, packaging, transport and storage of a product according to normal circumstances. Surely we ought to have some such clause to take into account unforeseen problems and to give legal force to what must be seen as a real duty to society of anyone who provides one of the necessities of life, be it from a mark et stall or from a huge food factory.

Photo of Mr David Ashby Mr David Ashby , North West Leicestershire 8:37 pm, 8th March 1990

The Bill is widely welcomed by the food and drink industry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) said, it speaks volumes for the way in which that industry approaches food safety. By and large, those involved in it are a most responsible body of people. In saying so, I emphasise "large" rather than "by".

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow said, the debate has centred on the question of registration as against licensing. It may come as no surprise to hon. Members that I am in favour of registration. However, I believe that there should be more information on the register, including information about how each registered person proposes to handle the food. There should be a requirement to amend the registration when proposals are changed. This would be of enormous help to the environmental health officers, who would then know which retailers or carriers he should home in on as the ones employing fundamentally unsafe practices and the ones that, therefore, should be watched very closely.

I hope that the Bill is part of a series of measures related to consumer protection. It is essentially a consumer protection Bill. We in this country have tended to congratulate ourselves on the way in which we handle food. As so often, we have taken the view that we are the best in the world. I think that we have been among the worst in the western world. We allow cash to be handled with food. Display counters are not cold enough. We often see flies and other insects on displays. There are no hygiene tests on those serving in food shops.

We should contrast conditions here with those on the continent. We tend to look down on the continent, but standards there are far higher, and have been for a long time. In Italy, a person cannot sell food unless he has a regular health check. Someone who handles food has to go to hospital for a health check every three months. If someone is caught handling cash with food, he is immediately subject to a large, on-the-spot fine. A person cannot handle food unless wearing proper protective clothing, including a hat and a proper jacket; the clothing is supposed to be clean and of a given standard. There is an immediate fine of £250, £300, £400, or £500 if someone who is not properly dressed tries to sell food.

I have a lot of contact with Italy because my sister-in-law runs a shop there that sells food. I know about the standards and the regular tests that apply. When I have been there and have asked, "Can I help you?", my sister-in-law has said, "No, you have to stay on the other side of the counter." I have not been allowed to go behind the counter because I have not passed the medical tests and I have not had proper clothing.

The Bill is good, but it is cautious. I am sorry that it does not include tests such as I have mentioned, because we will have to have them in due course. They are common sense. People who come here from abroad are horrified at standards in our food shops.

The other day I went into a baker's shop to buy some bread. The woman said, "Hello, love." She produced the bread, took my money, put it in the till, and wrapped up the bread. Everything was mixed up. I was horrified to think what I was getting. In addition, the bread was sticking out of the paper. We have all had experiences like that. We have to change our practices if we want healthy food. I can only welcome the Bill as at least going down that road.

The Bill also covers labelling. We have a right to know what we are eating, how the food is prepared and what it contains. Misleading advertisements which are so beloved by some sections of the food industry must stop. The labelling must tell us if the food is 90 per cent. water and 1 per cent. flavouring. We must know what we are buying.

We have to be careful about labelling. I am deeply concerned about people who cannot take certain substances and who must know what is in the food. We cannot have labels that are covered simply in E numbers. We must know exactly what is in the food or the labelling will be misleading to all but the most expert consumer. We want something that covers the middle ground. The regulations must be strong and enforceable.

This is a consumer protection Bill. I am sorry that it does not cover weights and measures. I look forward to the next measure. When I went into the bread shop the other day and got my dirty bread, I was conscious of the fact that I was being ripped off. When wheat prices have been shooting down, bread prices have been shooting up. I cannot understand why consumers buy bread which is not weighed. We can buy a half a pound loaf for which we pay 40p, yet a baguette costs £1·50 a lb. It is time that everything was sold by weight so that the consumer is no longer ripped off, as happens from time to time.

The debate on irradiation has been interesting. Interventions from the Opposition Benches show that irradiation is not fully understood. I suspect that we will have an interesting and exciting time in Committee as we debate irradiation. I am in favour of it. The scientific evidence that I have read is overwhelming; I think that all the safeguards are available. I accept that there is concern about it. I look forward to the day when I can buy irradiated tropical fruit which was ripe before it was picked. When it has been picked green it is tasteless. I should like tropical fruit to be irradiated so that it comes to me with all the taste and flavour that I remember from my youth.

I cannot understand why the Opposition parties have taken a political stance on irradiation. I do not think that it is a party political matter. I look forward to the debate in Committee on irradiation.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton 8:45 pm, 8th March 1990

A few years ago, I was shocked to discover that three nations in the United Kingdom were in the top five for heart disease. I was doubly shocked because the Government were complacent about it. In June 1985 I presented a petition to the House on the subject. Since then there have been numerous food scares involving salmonella, listeria, and botulism. My petition is still a model approach to safer food and a healthier diet.

I welcome the few morsels in the Bill, as do various consumer organisations and local authority enforcement officers. But, in the words of an election campaign in the United States a couple of years ago, "Where's the beef'?" in respect of protecting people? The Bill is a major opportunity missed to reassure the public on food safety and public health. It does not provide real legislative teeth or the resources necessary for local authority enforcement officers to do their job properly.

Because of all the public concern about food safety and inadequate food quality, consumers deserve for the 1990s a comprehensive programme of action, funded by the Government, for food safety and public health. The public are not getting that in the Bill.

The Bill includes a few positive measures—the strengthening of the powers of local authority enforcement officers on improvement notices and prohibition orders, the wider definition of unfit food and improved seizure powers for suspect food, the raising of fines and penalties by a factor of 10 in relation to food which is injurious to health, mandatory hygiene training for certain categories of food handlers, the ability to bypass the immediate offender when it is appropriate to prosecute the real offender, and the lifting of Crown immunity, although there is exemption for both the Queen and the national security services. I wonder why the security services should still have immunity to poison people. Nevertheless, there is much in the Bill to be welcome.

However, many of the slices in this legislative sandwich are without filling from the point of view of consumers and enforcement officers. There is very little democratic improvement for consumers. The new consumer food panel will be small and toothless. The food safety directorate is just another name for civil servants and advisers. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food key Food Advisory Committee is one-sided, with eight representatives of the food industry versus five from medicine and local government and just one from consumer interests. That is bad. There is no independent food safety agency; the Bill ignores the chance to introduce one. It is necessary to get a new system of quality standard and co-ordinate the level of local inspection and enforcement.

I favour a licensing scheme for premises instead of the registration powers in the Bill. There should be prior approval from the local authority before anyone can operate a food business, and that licence should be renewed annually. If someone buys a car, we expect him to pass a driving test before he gets a driving licence to drive. It should be the same for food, and people should not be able to set up in the high street and feed a mass of people without having a proper licence.

From a London viewpoint, I support compulsory food hygiene training. There are special needs for those food handlers whose first language is not English. That is a case for extra resources, particularly in an area such as London, where there is a high ethnic minority population and a need for the translation of material and mutilingual training. My borough has made a start in this respect. I could give the House some examples, but time does not allow me to do so.

We need extra resources and funds to ensure the success of mandatory training for food handlers. The funds of 30 million promised to local authorities will, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) said, be swallowed up by the poll tax. In any case, that is a woefully inadequate figure and will not enable the officers to perform their tasks and meet their responsibilities.

The criteria for the distribution of those funds are wrong. I hope that they will not be distributed merely on a pro-rata basis—the number of food premises—or a system based on population because that would be unfair. The criteria should be based on deprivation and poverty indicators, taking into account a borough's housing, unemployment and other social issues. All those indicators reflect the standard of food outlets which those boroughs provide.

The issue of labelling has been confined to the Bill's regulations. However, all food should show the details of all the ingredients used in its production, including details of processing, chemical treatment and full nutritional labelling.

The London Food Commission and the Institution of Environmental Health Officers have said that the advantages and safety of food irradiation have not been clearly demonstrated and they are worried about unscrupulous people taking advantage of it. It may kill most of the bacteria, but it will leave harmful toxins in the product and destroy nutrients such as vitamins.

There should be a consumer education programme. I suggest a new levy on food advertisements, which could then be used on a health and consumer education programme. The Government should take the lead on that.

The Bill could have many more teeth. With the Bill the Government have warmed the plate, but they have not yet guaranteed a disease-free dinner on it for all our citizens.

Photo of Mr James Couchman Mr James Couchman , Gillingham 8:54 pm, 8th March 1990

I shall be brief, because a number of the points that I wished to make have already been made ad nauseam. I start by declaring my interest: for 20 years I have been involved in licensed catering in the pub business. I still run pubs in London and, therefore, I have an interest in the Bill.

I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Minister has decided on registration rather than licensing. All licensed caterers are, by definition, already licensed by the justices. When licences are granted, environmental health officers have the opportunity to make representations to the court about whether they think that the prospective licensees are fit and proper people to run licensed catering establishments.

I am concerned by the enormity of the task confronting my right hon. Friend the Minister. It seems that the Bill will catch not only all licensed premises and unlicenced food shops and premises, but all shops retailing food and anyone who sells confectionery. Therefore, virtually every garage in the country will come within the net of the Bill. I wonder exactly how my right hon. Friend proposes to offer a proper enforcement service for registered food sellers.

Irradiation seems to have been covered by almost all the speakers in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who has unfortunately had to leave the Chamber, summed up the issue admirably when he said that he saw it as just the latest in a chain of methods to preserve food beyond what might be called its natural shelf life. I am in favour of allowing irradiation on a strictly controlled basis, with the labelling for irradiated food promised by my right hon. Friend. I understand that, where finished and prepared food is offered on a plate, it is impossible to label it, but we are obliged, under other provisions, to show what we are going to serve by way of menus in windows and on tables. No doubt proper organisation of menus will allow us to show whether food has been irradiated.

My main point relates to enforcement. Environmental health officers, who tend to be generalists rather than specialists, already have a wide variety of duties. Undoubtedly the Bill will add substantially to their burdens. For some time there have been many vacancies for environmental health officers throughout the country. As long as 15 years ago, when I was vice-chairman of an environmental health committee, we had great difficulty in recruiting environmental health officers. There is nothing new about that, and the Bill will make even more urgent the need for more environmental health officers to be trained and recruited.

I wish to look beyond training and recruitment because I want a consistent standard of enforcement throughout the country. Unfortunately, all too often examples of personal prejudices influence the actions of environmental health officers. I suppose that the most notorious recent case was the capricious and vexatious prosecution of La Gavroche by the city of Westminster on the advice of its environmental health officers, Parker Brown and MacGregor.

It seems that not only individual EHOs have prejudices, but also local authorities. They sometimes regard this as a duty which they can use to extend their empire and act in a way that certainly builds up cynicism and scepticism on the part of those involved in the premises that come within their ambit.

There is a parallel with health and safety legislation; the same officers are responsible for the enforcement of health and safety legislation. It is possible to make almost any licensed catering premises unworkable by extreme zealousness and over-onerous demands for health and safety projects.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said, some environmental health officers make demands for tiling, untiling and retiling. I was asked to put tiles on the floor of a beer cellar. I do not know whether that environmental health officer had ever penetrated a beer cellar, but when a 10 of 22-gallon keg is dropped on a tile floor the tiles shatter. He seriously wanted me to tile the floor so that I could throw my barrels around and shatter the tiles. Because of instances such as that, we need to ensure—through secondary legislation, codes of practice, and the directions that my right hon. Friend the Minister must give—that we achieve consistent and sensible enforcement.

Some environmental health officers are extremely helpful with their advice and guidance. They give instruction to people who perhaps do not know as much as they should about food safety and food hygiene. They build up confidence and co-operation. It is a desirable aspiration of the Bill to build a partnership between environmental health officers—with their guidance and advice—and food sellers. The Bill should be regarded not as draconian, a penalty, or something that should be feared by food sellers, but as a sensible basis for their entirely proper and legitimate business. I wish my right hon. Friend well in taking the Bill through the House.

9 pm

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen

I welcome the Bill, because 90 per cent. of it is positive and helpful. It will help to improve standards of hygiene in shops and to educate the consumer. My reaction to the Bill is similar to my reaction to the Environmental Protection Bill—I am a member of the Standing Committee on that Bill—as I think that it makes steps in the right direction, but they are small steps and the Bill has major omissions. For example, it does not tackle food production and processing; animal feeding at the farm; what is added to foods in food processing; pesticides; or intensive farming. We know that the problems of salmonella, and now of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, relate to animal feeding, yet the Bill contains nothing to remedy that. It attempts to blame the shopkeeper, the retailer and the housewife for the problems with food poisoning.

I am pleased to note that, if there is one topic that hon. Members from both sides of the House have focused on during the debate, it is food irradiation. However, food irradiation is hardly mentioned in the Bill—just two lines in clause 17. The ban on irradiation is being lifted by stealth, yet that is the part of the Bill with which most people are concerned.

When food is irradiated, the molecules are damaged. It breaks those molecules randomly and creates reactive species—free radicals. Those free radicals recombine in random ways to produce all types of products. I have no doubt that some of those will be carcinogenic and others mutagenic and that they present a hazard to life. The Minister has said countless times that that is not the case. However, most of the research work has been sponsored by the Atomic Energy Authority, so it is not neutral, like academic research, which has found kidney damage, chromosome damage and tumours in animals that have been fed on irradiated food. Academic research has shown evidence of the sort of damage that I expect to occur. The dosages involved are enormous—they are 10 times the maximum permitted in the United States. That is equivalent to 100 million chest X-rays. Those are lethal amounts.

Given the controversy surrounding irradiation, it is not surprising that it has been banned in most countries. It is allowed in only 35 out of 140 nations; in the remainder, there is a complete ban. That has been the position in Britain until now. Out of the 35 countries that allow irradiation, only 21 use it and then only on a narrow range of foods—so much so that less than 0…1 per cent. of one thousandth of food consumed in Europe is irradiated.

The Minister said earlier that there are problems with herbs and spices and that ethylene oxide is an unsatisfactory preservative. If we were concerned only with herbs and spices, I do not think that the National Federation of Women's Institutes and all the consumer organisations would be so much up in arms. My fear is that as irradiation comes into the Bill by stealth, there will be no proper definition of what food may be covered. It is clear to me by now that the Government intend it to cover a wide range of foods.

An article in The Times last Friday had the headline: Irradiation 'could halve food poisoning'". It quoted Professor Bevan Moseley, the head of the institute of food research in Reading, as saying that, as poultrymeat is responsible for over half our salmonella cases, the problem would be halved with irradiated poultrymeat. It frightens me that the Government are thinking of irradiation as the major answer to the salmonella epidemic. The proper answer is to clean up factory farming and animal feeding, and to stop some of the current practices in farming. Two wrongs do not make a right and irradiation is a technological fix for a problem that should not exist in the first place. The real answer lies in clean farming.

The irradiation of poultry is allowed in only 11 countries in the world. In a parliamentary question this week, I asked how many countries used irradiation as a method of preservation for poultrymeat. The reply was that only two countries have used irradiation to some extent, whereas 138 countries have not. In other words, over 98 per cent. of the countries of the world do not use irradiation on poultrymeat. It disturbs me that Britain will be a leader in that very wrong direction.

Many hon. Members have referred to the problems of testing. There is no test for irradiation and it is significant that the tests being considered are for free radicals or mutagenic products. It gives the game away that the Government are considering those damaging materials as a method of testing irradiated foods.

The Government should listen to public opinion on this matter. It is overwhelmingly hostile. Many sorts of non-political organisations, the consumer groups and the supermarket chains have come out decisively against irradiation. The most important is the British Medical Association which is cautionary in its attitude to food irradiation. I hope that when the Bill receives a detailed consideration, the Government will withdraw the provisions dealing with food irradiation.

Photo of Mr Keith Raffan Mr Keith Raffan , Delyn 9:07 pm, 8th March 1990

I know that there is a shortage of time before my hon. Friend the Minister has to reply, so I shall try to be as brief as possible. Nobody can be opposed to the Bill, based as it is on the principle of providing greater protection for the consumer. The question is whether it achieves that laudable aim and whether it goes far enough. Those questions especially concern me, as my right hon. Friend the Minister is aware. My constituency suffered the worst ever food poisoning outbreak—as the media said, perhaps in their usual exaggerated fashion. However, it was the most severe this century in western Europe. Five hundred and twenty-one people were infected by salmonella typhimurium, 54 of them were admitted to hospital and two subsequently died. That occurred at the end of July 1989.

On 6 November 1989, the Welsh Office launched an internal review of the handling of that outbreak to learn lessons for the future. It said that the review's findings would be considered in connection with the Bill. The review is still being carried out, and it will be another month before it is completed. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could give me an assurance that the review's recommendations, where appropriate, will be incorporated in the Bill in Committee. That is not only very important to me and to my constituents. These are lessons of national application.

The Bill will provide the Minister with flexible powers to make regulations, as many hon. Members have said. Having read through the written evidence submitted to the Welsh Office internal review from Clwyd health authority and Delyn borough council, I know that they did not agree on much, but there are two points on which they agreed which I want to bring to my hon. Friend's attention.

Food businesses involved in the preparation, retailing and distribution of "high risk" foods, prepared foods such as cooked meats, should be placed under a statutory duty to maintain complete and accurate lists of food outlets to which any such food has been distributed, and those lists should he immediately available on demand to local authority EHOs. They should also be under a statutory duty to fix to individual wrappings of food clearly legible labels identifying the packer and preparer of the food, together with the date of its preparation.

During the salmonella outbreak in north Wales and in the north-west last July, lists of food outlets from the two companies implicated were not immediately available. In fact, they took a day to complete, and they were then incomplete, and they had to be added to over succeeding days. They were incomplete because of inadequate records, even though computers were available.

Labelling must be detailed and rationalised to enable the tracing of the source of a product so that detailed warnings can be given to the consumer. During last summer's outbreak, there was a lack of information which led to unsatisfactory blanket warnings being given to the public. Those were the two points on which the health authority and Delyn borough council are agreed, and they are both important.

Clause 20 allows for registration and licensing, although it allows for licensing only when "necessary or expedient", as the Bill says. I regard that as too flexible, too loose. I want a licensing system for all "high risk" food premises—in other words, those dealing with open foods —giving local authorities the power to refuse or withdraw licences.

Clause 24 covers training, and many hon. Members have dealt with that issue. The provision says: A food authority may provide … training courses in food hygiene for persons … involved in food businesses". I would prefer it to say that an authority should provide training courses. Indeed, such authorities should be under a statutory duty to do so. Of the 118 positive cases of salmonella in Delyn last July—August, 28 were food handlers, a quarter of the total. That indicates the importance of food hygiene training for all food handlers, and that training should be updated every three years.

As for the financial and manpower effects of the Bill, it is extraordinary—as the Minister conceded on 27 July of last year, when he made his original statement—that there are no centrally held statistics covering local authorities' expenditure and time spent on enforcing food law. He said that he was sending out a questionnaire to local authorities to obtain details of exactly how much time EHOs were spending on that aspect of their activities. He rightly said that they had a wide range of activities—in my view, far too wide. There are not enough of them, as many hon. Members have said during the debate. I hope that, when replying to the debate, the Minister will say whether those questionnaires have all been returned to the Department and if they will be published.

The Bill creates new tasks which will require new staff. Much has been said about the extra £30 million to which my right hon. Friend referred in his opening speech. I find that a suspiciously round figure. I accept that it has been worked out according to a scientific formula, as my right hon. Friend said, but I should like know exactly how the calculation was done.

Many environmental health departments are understaffed and underfinanced. There is widespread belief in Delyn borough council that the EHD is the Cinderella of the council. The deputy chief environmental health officer has admitted that less than the ideal level of service is provided. That is borne out by the fact that the inspection of food shops and factories occurs only every two years. In 1988, only half the premises which should have been inspected were inspected. It is important to increase the number of inspections.

Following the salmonella outbreak, Delyn decided to do that and to crack down on food premises, and the number of inspections will be raised from once every two years to eventually twice a year, although initially to once every nine months. That alone requires one extra member of staff. In other words, Delyn is having to increase its staff even before undertaking the tasks imposed by the Bill. That is a measure of the cost to environmental health departments if they are to fulfil their functions properly.

There are other important aspects of the Bill which I do not have time to cover because I am anxious to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) to take part in the debate. I allowed myself seven minutes and I have one minute to go.

One final point I wish to raise is, who is in charge in the event of a food poisoning outbreak? A circular from the Department of Health says: The question whether a health authority or local authority should have overall lead responsibility for the prevention and control of infectious disease remains undecided". That is appalling. We have had a similar confusing circular from the Welsh Office. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health should get together with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and sort out who is in charge. It is now clear who should be in charge during the outbreak last July—August and the result was chaos, a lot of unnecessary mud-slinging and friction between the health authority and the borough council. This is a national issue and it must be resolved before the next major outbreak which, tragically, is bound to happen sooner or later.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Bonsor Sir Nicholas Bonsor , Upminster 9:15 pm, 8th March 1990

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan) and to the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) for speaking so briefly and giving me a chance to join in the debate. It has been said that anything worth saying can be said in four minutes, and I shall attempt to put that principle into practice.

I have an interest to declare and I hope that I have a slight knowledge of the subject because I am chairman of the Food Hygiene Bureau, a company which, as my right hon. Friend the Minister knows, is the largest food hygiene consultancy in the country. We advise people on standards of hygiene, train their staff and look after any emergencies that arise.

I am deeply involved in the hygiene industry, and in that capacity, I warmly welcome the Bill. It covers adequately the need to tighten up hygiene regulations and I am sure that it will go a long way to prevent a recurrence of the food poisoning outbreaks of 1989. The latest available figures show that 21,843 cases were reported in the first nine months of last year, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Many people who fall ill from food poisoning do not identify the subject of it or do not bother to report it.

There are two matters on which I should like to comment briefly. The first concerns the regulations. I have to confess to Ministers that I am concerned at the amount of power that they are taking to themselves in clauses 17 and 18 and schedule 1. It is a worry that future Governments will have such enormous powers to make rules, regulations and laws without returning to the House for approval and I am concerned about the provision in clause 18(1) whereby any Community obligation can be brought into effect in this country by way of such regulations. If I understand the position correctly, that will mean that a Community directive that would normally involve legislation in the House could bypass the House and go straight into the law of the land by means of ministerial regulation. That is not desirable, and I hope that the point can be further examined as the Bill proceeds through the House.

The other main issue on which almost every hon. Member who has spoken has touched is the irradiation of food. The first question is, "Is it safe?" I believe that it is 99·9 per cent. safe. There is still a query over the effects that pesticides and other chemicals that have clung to the food that is to be irradiated may suffer. There is certainly a possibility of both molecular and chemical change in those pesticides that could be harmful to humans who consume the food. But it is a minute risk, which I believe to be heavily outweighed by the benefits that irradiation can confer.

I would name just two. For some foods, irradiation is a far better treatment than any other available. The treatment of spices is a case in point. Spices are normally dried outside in their country of origin and are heavily contaminated. At the moment, they are often treated with toxic chemicals that could have a harmful effect on the humans who consume them. Irradiation treatment will be very much safer than the practice that we follow at the moment for lack of an alternative.

Secondly, as has been mentioned, the treatment deals with salmonella and listeria. Given the fuss that the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) rightly made about the dangers from those two sources of contamination——

Photo of Sir Nicholas Bonsor Sir Nicholas Bonsor , Upminster

Ah, well. It certainly came up.

I should have hoped for a greater welcome for the irradiation process. There is a real need to have the products labeled—a point that I raised in my question to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

There are three other items that I wish to fire off so that they can be considered at a later stage. First, I note that tap water is not included in the Bill. Tap water, of course, is a major potential source of infestation. I know that it is being dealt with in the European Community by water directives. I know that we have many water regulations coming through. Perhaps that is why it has not been included here. Perhaps the Minister who is to reply would answer that point.

Next there is the question of food temperature, which, rather to my surprise, has not been mentioned today. It is the key to safe food handling. The temperature of food at all stages of the handling process, from manufacture to consumption, is of critical interest and importance. In transit and in the case of chilled foods in supermarkets, in particular, there are real dangers that controls at present are not adequate. There is also the problem that most of the measuring instruments used are not sufficiently accurate for people to be able to ensure that the foods are being or have been stored at the proper temperature. I hope that better equipment will shortly be available to enable that to be done.

Again, charitable events have not been mentioned in our debate, although they were referred to in the other House. I am a little concerned that the marvellous work done by all our charitable workers might be affected by the fact that people face the possibility of a two-year prison sentence and an unlimited fine if they inadvertently give anybody food poisoning. While I accept that people who go to charitable events need protection, I wonder whether penalties in those cases should be rather less than the penalties for some of the offences that the Bill prescribes.

My final point concerns the training of environmental health officers. A sum of £30 million is being provided to help to deal with this new Bill. I believe that, if that goes direct to local authorities, it will be largely wasted. I do not think that the Government will be able to keep adequate control over the way in which it is spent. I would far rather see that money go towards provision for the training of more environmental health officers to a higher standard so that we can be sure that the Bill will be properly monitored.

In summary, it is a very good Bill and goes a long way towards meeting the needs of the times. Lord Gallacher, leading for the Opposition in the other place, said: It is a Bill which, with some improvements, can meet the needs of the times."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 December 1989; Vol. 513, c. 761.] I am glad that, largely I believe, hon. Members on all sides of the House agree on the value of and the need for this legislation.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly 9:22 pm, 8th March 1990

The Opposition obviously recognise the expertise of the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) in this matter. It is appropriate that all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have curtailed their speeches so as to allow the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to speak.

I must say briefly how pleased I am to see the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan) in the Chamber today. I know that he has been hospitalised and has had to make his regular television appearances from his bed, so it is nice to see that he has recovered sufficiently to join us. The fact that he has a majority of only 1,200 and is likely to make rather fewer speeches in the House in future is another reason for us to welcome him today.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food opened the debate this evening with a 40-minute speech. Most of it was good stuff and quite relevant to the debate, but I have to tell him that a person who opens a debate, takes 40 minutes of House of Commons time and then leaves the Chamber while half a dozen of his hon. Friends and half a dozen Opposition Members make contributions to the debate is guilty of gross discourtesy not only to his hon. Friends and to Opposition Members but to the House itself.

It is a pity that the right hon. Gentleman did not have the courtesy of his hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill), who explained that he had a long-standing engagement and could not be present for the winding-up speeches. That is an honourable and acceptable course of action. It is an apology that we fully accept, as we have accepted apologies from other hon. Members who have spoken. It is a pity that the Minister cannot live up to any decent standards.

While I am dealing with the Minister, I draw his attention to one further matter. During the course of the debate, five of his hon. Friends had recourse to the civil service Box to consult civil servants about the content of their speeches. Every Member of this place knows that civil servants do not attend the Chamber for the purpose of advising Back Benchers on how to make political speeches. I am notifying the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of what happened this evening and I leave the matter with him in the expectation that he will put his house in order. I warn him that if he does not do so, I shall refer the matter to the House authorities with the intention of making sure that it does not happen again.

I turn to the Bill itself—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Delyn and others wish to delay the House, I put it on record so that there is no misunderstanding, that there are other parts of the Bill's consideration that are to be dealt with this evening. If I have to face such barracking, I shall be happy to make sure that the House sits for the full time that has been allocated to it and that we arrange for Divisions to take place.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

If the hon. Member for Delyn wishes to continue barracking, perhaps he should consult the Government Whip to ascertain whether that is an appropriate course of action for him to take.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

We, the Opposition, have said that we welcome the Bill. We do not welcome it as enthusiastically, for example, as the hon. Member for Upminster. We have considerable reservations. As a tidying-up operation, there is much to commend it. The replacement of seven Acts with one is the kind of rationalisation that would be helpful across the huge body of statutory law. The Bill covers an area in which a legislative update is overdue. Changes in food technology and popular tastes have rendered existing legislation archaic in areas such as food manufacturing, preparation and retailing.

The Bill starts with a definition of food. It is carefully crafted to negotiate the difficult problem of foods which are alive, and live animals and fish which are not regarded as foods until they are dead. In another sense, the Bill ignores the basics. However welcome some of the measures that it contains may be, the Bill is not a substitute for a healthy food policy. The tightest of safeguards can ensure only that the consumer does not perish through poisoning. They do nothing to provide protection against death through malnutrition or diet-related illness.

Food law should embrace the ways in which the health of the consumer can be improved as well as providing the means by which it can be protected. Instead, the Government's refusal to develop a healthy food policy on the eccentric ground that freedom of choice includes the right to obesity or starvation means that our national diet has reached an historic low point. If anyone doubts what I say, I refer him to the national food survey for 1988—the most recent year available—which contains the dismal observation that the nutritional value of food eaten in Britain's homes is the lowest ever recorded.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

I am curtailing my speech to take account of the speeches made by the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends. I am sorry, but I must proceed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be selected to help consider the Bill in Committee, when we shall have the opportunity to examine these matters further.

The survey showed also, not surprisingly, that the diet of the poorest sections of society is considerably less healthy than that of the better-off. Partly as a consequence, Britain is in the shameful position of having a widening gap between the health status of the rich and that of the poor. The incidence of diet-related illness graphically confirms the divide. For example, tooth loss, which its clearly related to diet, is five times as common in socio-economic group 5 as in group 1. Chronic heart disease is twice as common in the lower socio-economic groups as in the higher. Body weight could hardly be more closely related to diet. The lowest groups show disproportionately high levels of obesity.

The Bill does nothing to address those problems. Ideally, an improved version of it would include a package of measures to enhance the nutritional as well as the hygienic quality of our food, but the Government's doctrinaire attitude to those matters, which is obviously shared by some of the Minister's hon. Friends—the let-them-eat-cake approach—prevents the Government from championing the idea that people should be encouraged as a matter of policy to enjoy a diet that is good for them.

I am not suggesting even a whiff of compulsion, but the Opposition think it sensible where possible to use the powers available to Government to promote healthy eating, rather than insisting that, if consumer ignorance results in unhealthy diets, that is the consumer's perogative. It would be heartening to think that that might be a bipartisan approach. It used to be, but not any longer.

Why, if it were the Government's intention to promote healthy diet, did they abolish, for example, nutrition standards for school meals? School meals were introduced for the very reason that the children of the least well-off were at risk from poor nutrition. For some children in my consituency and in those of many of my hon. Friends, they were the only nutritionally balanced regular meal. That was why my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) tried to reintroduce nutrition standards in school meals, but his attempt failed in the teeth of Government opposition.

Nutritional labelling clearly has a potentially important role to play in increasing the freedom of choice, and provision is made in the Bill for that. That freedom of choice is meaningful only where the consumer has the necessary information. Voluntary labelling is not the answer. Under the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food voluntary scheme introduced in 1987, assessed in a Consumers Association survey in May 1989, comprehensive information with which to make an informed choice was available on only 3·5 per cent. of the sample of more than 400 goods.

By agreeing to a voluntary scheme for Europe, the Government have found themselves in the dilemma of how to encourage the maximum disclosure of information useful to the consumer without making that so onerous as to result in manufacturers refusing to label their products at all. The Government have resolved that problem to the complete satisfaction of the sugar lobby—substantial contributors to Tory party funds—by subsuming sugar content into the figure for carbohydrate, which also includes nutritionally beneficial starch, and removing the distinctions on labels between saturated and unsaturated fats.

If the consumer is left in ignorance about the levels of saturated fats and sugar, what is the point of the label? Those are the most important considerations and both are currently left out. The whole issue of improved nutrition labelling is entirely left out of the Bill. I am pleased to say that the hon. Memer for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) made that point in a useful and enlighted contribution to the debate.

On a similar theme, do the Government not recognise the substantial and growing market for foods grown without the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides and animals which are raised and slaughtered in humane conditions? That was precisely the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise).

As an advocate both of natural production methods and of animal welfare, I celebrate the growing interest in organic and extensive production, but where are the clauses in the Bill to ensure that only food which legitimately meets the claim "organic" or "humanely produced" is so labelled? Why is there nothing in the Bill to ensure that those of us who wish to avoid eating the products of animals slaughtered without stunning can do so by studying a label? That is a major defect in the Bill.

There is also an overwhelming case for the replacement of the sell-by labelling arrangement with a compulsory use-by system. The recent report of the Richmond committee on the microbial safety of food recommends exactly that. When the Government, who claim to be determined to follow scientific advice, receive scientific advice which they dislike they are happy to ignore it. Recommendation after recommendation of the Richmond committee has been rejected by the Government. Will the Minister guarantee that the regulations to be introduced under the Bill will implement that particular recommendation of the Richmond committee? Will he guarantee that those provisions will be compulsory and enforceable? At the moment, not only is the Bill silent on those important issues, but it is so restrictively drafted as to render detailed debate on the subject at risk of being ruled out of order.

If free choice means informed choice—as it does—the Government's commitment must be called into question, to judge by their record of obscurantism in those and other examples.

Having considered some of the issues that the Bill fails to tackle, I shall consider the adequacy or otherwise or what it contains. The debate on registration and licensing is still unresolved. In Committee, hon. Members expressed views and recognised the strength of the argument for licensing as opposed to registration. Major uncertainties remain over enforcement, not to mention the vexed question of irradiation, which has been the subject of many good speeches today.

By rejecting expert advice from expert advisers—from practitioners and people who are responsible for operating the regulations—and not going for a system of licensing, the Government are choosing a reactive rather than a proactive approach to the protection of public health.

To a considerable extent, this is a choice between prophylaxis and cure. Whether they are the local government officers who will have to enforce the Bill when it is enacted or the doctors and public health specialists who will treat consumers whom the Bill fails to protect, practitioners unanimously favour prophylaxis. The Government, in their pursuit of the free market and by persistently championing producer rather than consumer interests, have opted for the reactive approach—for cure rather than prevention.

There is to be no provision in the Bill for the licensing of food premises, other than those premises involved in food irradiation. The Bill merely requires a food business to provide four weeks advance notice of its intention to open. That fact will be recorded on a register and that will be that—the food business will be in operation.

Clearly, under the system of registration as opposed to licensing, the local authority would benefit because it would be fulfilling its public protection role more successfully if it prevented the opening of sub-standard premises rather than seeking to close them down using the courts after the damage has been done, with all the expense that that involves for traders, consumers and local authorities. However, it is not only the local authority which benefits. The trader, who is advised before committing large sums of money, will be advised on what exactly will be required to ensure that the premises meet the necessary standard and will also benefit from that advice before he starts his operation.

The Richmond committee clearly reached the same conclusions because it said: in order adequately to protect the public health, there is considerable advantage in prior inspection and approval before a food business is opened or a process started". The Government claim time after time to recognise and act on expert advice, but on this occasion, they have received expert advice which they dislike and they choose to ignore it. The Richmond committee clearly reached that conclusion.

The Government have opted for a system that no one has asked for—a four-week period of notice from a nascent food business, during which it is presumably hoped that the environmental health department will go along and pay a visit. That is neither one thing nor the other. There will be no obligation for an EHO to inspect the premises. Due to Government under-funding of local authorities, very few have the staff or the resources to ensure that such a visit takes place. None the less, if food premises open without prior inspection and a case of food poisoning or worse occurs, the local authority will be guilty of having failed to pay such a visit and to protect public health. If the Government are serious and want public inspections, let it be clear that they are serious—let them accept that the case for regulation is overwhelming.

If the Government persist in refusing to allow licensing rather than registration, enforcement becomes more important, although by definition it is after the event and therefore less desirable than prevention. The hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) recognised that in his contribution to the debate.

According to a recent report from the Hereford and Worcester trading standards department, out of a total of 303 food products examined, 114 broke the statutory requirements. A finger from a rubber glove was found in a fish pie, chewing gum in a biscuit, a chicken claw in a Chinese meal, slugs in peas, a fly in a sardine sandwich and a previously sucked sweet in a tub of margarine. That is all very unpleasant, but not so potentially dangerous as other things that were found—a knife blade in a soft drink can, a sewing needle in a loaf of bread and glass in 12 different packaged foodstuffs. With such hazards to contend with, enforcement is clearly a major priority and the inspection of premises which are merely registered without being licensed will go by the board.

Time and again, when I speak to the people at the sharp end—those who see the problems at first hand, and know what needs to be done—I am told that the real problem is lack of staff and resources to implement even the existing legislation, let alone the new requirements. Increased demands and new responsibilities for enforcement action, fewer local resources as a result of cuts in local authority spending and the reduction in EHO vacancies all combine to form a pattern which will undermine the effectiveness of enforcement action. That point was made by the hon. Members for York (Mr. Gregory) and for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). The Bill does nothing to redress the balance.

The question of funding has been raised by many of my hon. Friends, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise). The Bill states: The additional cost for local authorities is likely to be of the order of £30 million a year from 1991–1992 onwards. This will be taken into account in next year's Revenue Support Grant Settlement. The reality behind the phrase "taken into account" is that the new money is unlikely to be found—that is why the Minister chose that phrase. Increased weight may well be given to the food inspection expenditure head in the calculation of the overall revenue support grant, but I have no doubt that it will be offset by reductions elsewhere and by the Government's overall policy of cutting revenue support grant. In other words, the increase will be only notional and authorities will have to finance the new service by reordering their existing priorities. Given the turmoil caused by the introduction of the poll tax and the attempts of embattled councils to minimise the impact of the charge on residents, it is unlikely that the new responsibilities will be properly discharged.

Lest the Minister deny what I am saying, I will ask him a specific question. Will he give an undertaking that the £30 million implementation costs—that is his estimate—will either be added as a specific and identified sum to the total standard spending calculations, or will be added as a specified and additional sum to the total level of revenue support grant? If the Bill is to mean anything, that is what needs to be done. Without those additional resources, embattled local authorities trying to maintain standards and comply with the requirements placed on them by central Government will be unable to do so.

We are very concerned about irradiation. My hon. Friends the Members for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) and for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), as experts on the matter, made compelling speeches. I assure the House—I know that many Conservative Members will want to know this—that we shall table an amendment on irradiation to allow the whole House to decide on the issue.

The Minister claims to be the listening Minister, so why is he not listening now? Why does he not listen to the former Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner)? Having spent seven years in the Ministry, she is clearly unhappy about irradiation. Why does he not listen to the hon. Member for Davyhulme, who made a powerful and compelling speech against irradiation?

The Minister was happy enough to say to the National Farmers Union a few weeks ago, "I listened and I acted." He said it three or four times. Why does he not listen to all the consumer groups? Why does he not listen to the 84 per cent. of people who say that they do not want irradiated food? Why does he not listen to all those who are concerned about the quality of our food? Apparently he can listen to the farmers but not to the consumers.

We shall pursue in Committee the other matters about which we are unhappy. The amendment already made, which removes some of the unwarranted secrecy that had been written into the Bill, is to be welcomed. Nevertheless, too much secrecy remains. We shall have more to say about that later. According to the Bill, education and training are to be improved, but the Government's record gives us no cause for confidence. We shall examine later what lies behind their intentions. We shall also want to secure assurances from Ministers that regulations promulgated under the Bill are properly and openly debated when they are made.

I have no doubt that the Bill can be considerably improved before it returns to the House. With that hope, while recognising that the Bill as drafted is but a figleaf to cover the Government's poor record on diet and public health, we give the Bill not a warm but an acquiescent welcome and shall not oppose its Second Reading.

Photo of Mr Roger Freeman Mr Roger Freeman , Kettering 9:45 pm, 8th March 1990

I am very glad that the Bill has received a broad welcome from Members on both sides of the House. I am sorry that the time available to me, just 14 minutes, will not allow me to answer all the questions that have been raised by hon. Members. I shall write to those Members whose questions I do not answer. I am sure that they will accept my apologies for not dealing with all their points now.

The Government welcome the Richmond committee's recommendations, which have been broadly accepted. Its work was thorough. We thank all the members of the committee.

You may be wondering, Mr. Speaker, why a Department of Health Minister is winding up the debate. It is because my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who is specifically responsible for food safety—and the Department of Health work closely together on food safety. The Department of Health is responsible for public food hygiene and microbiological contamination. I meet my opposite number at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on many occasions to discuss issues of mutual concern.

The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) asked a number of questions. Unfortunately, I have time to deal only with the key ones. He asked where we stand in the world league table in terms of food surveillance. We have the best food safety surveillance system in the world. I say that without any qualification. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I visited the public health laboratory service earlier this week. It is responsible for monitoring food poisoning outbreaks. We were much impressed by what we saw. I am pleased that the public health laboratory service is soon to introduce a major new computing system to ensure that information on food poisoning outbreaks reaches the centre in Colindale and that it is then dispersed to the appropriate authorities responsible for food safety. That is a major new advance.

As for the suggestion by the hon. Member for South Shields that there should be an independent food standards agency, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is accountable to Parliament for policy, as are other Ministers. We have independent advice from expert committees. The hon. Member for South Shields has not, I believe, persuaded the House that an independent food standards agency would lead to any improvement.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the food research that has been carried out at Bristol. The two food research centres at Reading and Norwich are now larger and more efficient. The Government are to spend more in the coming year, in real terms, on food research than they spent last year. The hon. Gentleman does not want any change in the organisation of food research. By implication, he denies the Government's responsibility to make food research more effective.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) referred to the £30 million which is to go to the local authorities. I assure the hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) that this is all new money and that all of it will go, by means of revenue support grant, to local authorities. The hon. Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise) misread the Bill or the financial memorandum. I give her the commitment or assurance that she sought. It will be new money, and in fixing the sum or the order of magnitude the Government consulted enforcement authorities and the local authority associations.

The hon. Member for South Shields referred to irradiation, as did many other hon. Members. I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Swindon (Mr. Coombs), for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) and for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman) for their support for the concept of irradiation. It is not true to say that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is promoting irradiation. No one is promoting irradiation. The Government are seeking to facilitate irradiation. Several hon. Members have got the issue way out of proportion. If the Bill is passed, and if regulations to be laid before the House are passed, a tiny proportion of British food available for consumption in the United Kingdom will have been irradiated.

The hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) and my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) were right to draw the attention of the House to the concerns of many, including women's institutes. They will have the right to choose whether to consume irradiated food. I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Medway the assurance that she sought: we shall take every step to make sure that the food is properly labelled, and my right hon. Friend the Minister will consult various advisory panels to make sure that the labelling of irradiated food is clear and in no way misleading.

The hon. Member for South Shields asked why we were anticipating measures in Europe. The EC bodies do not provide advice on health aspects. The Government have listened to the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations which has said that irradiation is safe, the United Kingdom Advisory Committee on Irradiated and Novel Foods, the British Nutrition Foundation, the Medical Research Council and many others. Those are the right bodies in which we should place our confidence.

The hon. Gentleman also asked why we need to have the process if the food is wholesome. There may be a misunderstanding about the consequences of salmonella and listeria on the wholesomeness of food. As the hon. Gentleman will know, in many food processes it is not possible completely to eradicate those bugs. Irradiation can eliminate them or seek to eliminate them. That will certainly mean that the shelf life of irradiated foods can be longer than would otherwise be the case, but it is a sensible process of treating food, like freezing, canning or curing. It cannot make unfit food fit for consumption. If it is unfit in the first place, my right hon. Friend will ban it.

I hope that I have dealt with the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Medway about the public perception. She is right to remind the House that, despite the arguments that the Government have taken into account on the health aspect of irradiation, many members of the public are concerned and will not buy the food. It is their right so to choose. The Government's responsibility is to make sure that the food is properly labelled so that an informed choice can be made.

The Government are also satisfied that there are no health risks to those who choose to buy and consume irradiated food. My hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill), who has apologised for his early departure, raised a number of points. He expressed his concern that the House will not have the opportunity to debate the regulations on irradiation. There will be full consultation on the regulations and an opportunity in due course for the House to debate them under the negative resolution procedure.

Several of my hon. Friends asked the valid question how one can test whether food has been irradiated. There are no tests at present to identify whether food has been irradiated. However, it is quite clear that the process of licensing, the process of official inspection, the process of making sure that there is proper documentation at the few factories that might choose, under licence, to proceed with irradiation, are sufficient. Indeed, the United States Food and Drug Administration is perfectly satisfied that that procedure provides the correct controls. I cite again the view of the World Health Organisation: Irradiation could be of enormous value in dealing with the major food problems of developing countries. The right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes), who has gone, my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West mentioned the shortage of environmental health officers. We believe that there are about 400 vacancies—about 8 per cent. of the total complement—in the country. Most of the vacancies, of course, are in London and the south-east. However, the number of student environmental health officers entering training increased from 207 in 1985 to 289 in 1989. I hope that that trend will continue. There is also scope to use less qualified staff to carry out some tasks, thus freeing the more highly qualified officers for tasks for which their qualifications are necessary. The Audit Commission is studying environmental health departments to determine whether their organisation and efficiency might be improved.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for South Shields, mentioned the question of training places for student officers. It was right that they should do so. I have already mentioned the increase in the number of students. A course at Bristol polytechnic, which started in January this year, will provide a new postgraduate opportunity for EHO training. A course at King's college, London university, will start next September, and discussions are taking place about increasing EHO training facilities at Birmingham university, Manchester polytechnic and Hatfield polytechnic. The right hon. Member for Halton spoke also about hygiene training in schools. He might like to know that the new science core curriculum makes provision for such training. Children will have to learn the elements of food hygiene.

My hon. Friends the Members for Medway, Gloucestershire, West, and Ludlow (Mr. Gill) the hon. Member for Rutherglen, my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) talked in particular about training for food handlers. This is a vital matter. The Government have issued a consultation document on methods of training food handlers, and we want to receive responses by 30 June. The codes of practice on which the implementation advisory committee will be advising—perhaps playing a part in drawing up—will deal with the great issue of trying to make standards of enforcement as even as possible throughout the country.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) talked about registration. I do not agree with what he said. Under our proposals, registration will be as of right. Enforcement officers, the EHOs, will have a great battery of powers —warning, advice, prosecution, closure—and, indeed, Ministers themselves will have powers to issue emergency control orders. That is the simpler, less bureaucratic way of control, of ensuring high food standards in this country. Notification four weeks prior to opening will allow environmental health officers to visit premises and provide advice.

I hope that I have dealt with the point of the hon. Member for Preston about the £30 million. This matter was raised by the hon. Member for Caerphilly. I hope that I have made the position quite clear.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon, rightly, welcomed the advisory committee—the consumer voice —that my right hon. Friend announced today. My hon. Friend asked about Ministers' powers. Under clause 43, Ministers will have the power to intervene, but we want local authorities to take first responsibility.

The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) raised the question of listeriosis and of the chief medical officer's decision, in February last year, to issue warnings to pregnant women, in particular, about soft cheese. That was a complicated jigsaw. He acted correctly, at the right time, not too late and certainly not too early. The Department supports him. It has taken time to establish that listeria can be carried by food and that it could affect the unborn child. We fully support the chief medical officer in his decisions.

The Bill, which I commend to the House, will improve standards of food safety. I am glad that all hon. Members support its Second Reading. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills).