E. Coli (Scotland)

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 28 November 1996.

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Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling 3:31, 28 November 1996

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the E. coli outbreak in Scotland. The first indication of the food poisoning outbreak involving E. coli 0157 came on Friday 22 November. It was identified in the Wishaw area of Scotland and, following preliminary investigations by the local authority environmental health officers, it rapidly became apparent that the most likely common source of the outbreak was a single butcher's shop in Wishaw. By 9 pm on the same evening, environmental health officers had visited the owner and the premises concerned. All the cases investigated to date have connections with food from the butcher's premises in Wishaw.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray), in whose constituency the likely source of the outbreak is situated, has been rightly concerned about its effects, and I wrote to him last night to report to him the latest situation, following inquiries that he made to my office.

I can now report to the House that the total number of cases reported is 132, with 64 cases confirmed and 68 awaiting confirmation. I very much regret that a total of five elderly people have died, four in the Wishaw area and one in Forth valley. On behalf of the Government and the House, I wish to extend our deepest sympathies to the bereaved families. I sincerely hope that all others affected can make a full and speedy recovery.

On the basis of all the data that have been collected to date, it would appear that the epidemic peaked round about 20 to 22 November. There is still the possibility of further cases occurring up until this coming weekend. Thereafter, there is still, of course, the possibility of secondary cases occurring as a result of person-to-person spread.

When news of the outbreak was first notified to the health board—on the afternoon of Friday 22 November—local action was taken immediately to identify the source. On Saturday 23 November, the butcher agreed to cease production and distribution of cooked meat and meat products. Further investigations were carried out to establish the supply routes from the butcher's shop, and hence the further premises that might be selling contaminated produce.

The initial indications from the investigations were that the further premises were localised in the north Lanarkshire area. The full local control arrangements, involving both the local authority environmental health officers and Lanarkshire health board officers, were set in action.

On Tuesday 26 November, the local outbreak control team identified distribution of contaminated produce beyond Lanarkshire, and food poisoning cases were reported in Forth valley. Following detailed consultations late on 26 November between Scottish Office officials and the local control team about the difficulty of identifying the distribution premises outwith the local area, a food hazard warning notice was issued early on 27 November to the environmental health departments of all local authorities in Scotland, to directors of public health and to consultants in public health medicine. It sought their immediate assistance, especially the assistance of those in the Central belt, in tracing any potential infected food that may still be on the market.

Given that most cases are still within the Lanarkshire health board area, and that all the evidence points to a single primary source of the outbreak in Lanarkshire, the outbreak control team in Lanarkshire remains the main focus of activity in respect of investigation and control of the incident. All the necessary measures have been implemented, and the procedures are working well. Scottish Office officials are attending meetings of the control team and are keeping careful watch on the further spread of cases.

Any newly reported cases of E. coli 0157 occurring in Scotland will be fully investigated locally by consultants in public health medicine, to see whether any connection with the Lanarkshire incident is established. I am therefore satisfied that existing procedures are working, and that all that can be done to contain the outbreak is being done.

However, it is clear that we need to establish exactly what happened, and to take any measures necessary to minimise the possibility of a repetition of the incident. I have therefore decided to appoint an expert group to investigate the circumstances surrounding the outbreak, and to advise me on any implications for food safety and on the general lessons to be learnt.

Professor Hugh Pennington, professor of microbiology at Aberdeen Royal Hospital NHS trust, and Scotland's foremost authority on E. coli, has kindly agreed to chair the group. It will not, of course, replace or cut across the other necessary investigatory work or any legal processes that might flow from the tragic outbreak. The full terms of reference and membership will be announced shortly. The members will be selected for their expertise in epidemiology and food control procedures, and will be supported by the chief medical officer for Scotland.

In the short term, we are issuing a further priority food hazard warning to all local authorities, asking them to remind butchers and meat product manufacturers of the need to exercise the highest level of hygiene in their premises. The Scottish Federation of Meat Traders Associations has been closely following the incident, has as a matter of urgency issued guidance to all its members in Scotland, and is reissuing the Department of Health publication entitled, "Safer Cooked Meat Production Guidelines".

In addition to those immediate and practical steps, the need for scientific investigation of the organism has been recognised by the Government's Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food, and in 1995, in response to the committee's findings, the Department of Health in England invited research proposals. Following assessment of the proposals received, 15 projects were approved for funding this year, four of them based in Scotland. Those projects take the cost of the on-going research effort to about £2.3 million.

It remains the case that routine hygiene measures, including hand-washing, keeping raw and cooked foods separate, cooking meat thoroughly and pasteurisation of milk and dairy products, will substantially reduce the risk of acquiring E. coli 0157 infection and other food-borne infections. In March this year, the chief medical officer issued to health boards and local authorities revised guidance setting out the basic principles for the investigation and control of outbreaks of food-borne disease. That guidance will be kept under careful review.

This is a serious matter and it demands a serious response. I should like to pay tribute to the efforts of North Lanarkshire's environmental health officers and the officers of Lanarkshire health board, and to national health service staff and general practitioners for the quality of care that they have given to the unfortunate victims. It is important that we should learn and apply all the lessons that we can from this incident. Professor Pennington and the chief medical officer for Scotland will report as quickly as possible, and we shall act on their findings.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and the information that he has given to the House. However, I regret the fact that, despite the normal courtesies, I saw the statement five minutes before 3.30 pm. Frankly, that is not good enough to allow us to make the sort of informed response that the House and the people outside deserve.

I am a Lanarkshire Member of Parliament and, with my colleagues, I know how worried and concerned people are in that part of Scotland about what is a public health emergency of the gravest proportions. I add my words of sympathy and condolence to those of the Secretary of State, to all those who have been bereaved, hospitalised or affected in any way by this horrible tragedy. I also wish those who are affected by it the same speedy recovery as the Secretary of State wished them.

I add my commendation to the agencies involved, for their prompt action—among them, North Lanarkshire council's environmental protection department, Lanarkshire health board and GPs across the county and more widely. I wish to single out the staff of Monklands and Law hospitals who have worked round the clock since last weekend to the point of exhaustion, tending with their usual dedication and care those struck down by E. coli 0157.

I have no wish to add in any way to existing public concern or to encourage any panic among the people whom I and my colleagues represent and care deeply about. But I hope that the Secretary of State will recognise that, in the circumstances today, some blunt questions have to be put and answered by Ministers if confidence is to return.

The outbreak was detected last Friday and, by that very evening, it was clear that the source was meat from James Barr and Son, Wishaw, which had been persuaded then to stop the sale of cooked, but not raw, meat. On Saturday, Monklands district general hospital was already preparing to deal with possibly a hundred cases. Given all that, how is it that only last night at 10 o'clock—five long days later, and with the death toll at five and rising—and only under pressure from Lanarkshire's Labour Members of Parliament, was the first list of outlets published? Why was there not an earlier publication of the list? Did the public not have a right to know where the suspected meat was going and the right to take precautions against these most virulent of bacteria?

Is not denying people the information that might prevent illness or even death showing a wilful and arrogant disregard for public health and public safety? Is it true that one of the reasons given for withholding the list of outlets was "commercial considerations"? Is it not long beyond time that the consumer interest was always put ahead of commercial considerations? Was the Scottish Office behind the decision to withhold information about outlets, as the Minister's statement seemed to suggest that the Department was involved all along? What advice did the Department give to Lanarkshire health board and North Lanarkshire council about informing the people of the area?

Why is it that even at lunchtime today—six days on from the detection of the outbreak—a further 11 outlets were discovered and their names published? Is that the final list of all the outlets that took the meat? As it is possible that some infected meat might still be in fridges and freezers, will the Scottish Office publish local and national advertisements showing the known outlets for the meat? Given that knowledge of that bacterium is considerable, and that its incidence in Scotland is much higher than in the rest of the country, can the Secretary of State add to the information that he has given about the special research that has been commissioned into the reasons for that incidence and the reasons why that seems to be a particular problem in Scotland?

The Secretary of State told us about the applications for relevant research that were accepted, but how many were turned down? Last year, the Government's Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food produced a report on E. coli, calling for more research and for guidelines on packaging and cooking beef. Were those recommendations put into practice and were any of the on-going special research projects turned down, terminated or cut back?

Does not this latest food safety emergency underline what folly it would be to make any further cuts in major food agencies or environmental protection departments? Does not it re-emphasise the need for a food services agency, to keep an appropriate distance between consumer and producer interests in the food industry and to increase public confidence in food safety?

As the Secretary of State rightly says, the situation is serious and demands serious responses, but is not it time that we started to learn lessons before, and not always in response to, emergencies such as the one that we now face?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. There was no discourtesy intended in his receiving the statement five minutes beforehand: I completed it at 3.15 pm, being anxious that the House should have the latest possible information. I hope that he will understand that.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tribute that he paid to the local authority and national health service staff who have been involved in dealing with the matter. He asked me a number of specific questions. I emphasise the fact that, quite rightly, the matter has been dealt with at a local level, by the local health board and environmental health officers from the local authority.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the list of outlets was published only last night. The information was gathered locally and I understand that the initial view was that the list should not be published until it had been established that the outlets had received material from the butcher concerned. It was for those who obtained the list to decide whether to publish it, and last night they did so.

I agree that public health concerns should be foremost: although there may be a balance of interests to be struck, the public health interest should always predominate, and I believe that that was the conclusion reached locally by those concerned. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Scottish Office was behind the decision. No, it was not. Indeed, I was informed yesterday evening that there was some concern about making the information available, and I suggested that it should be published if possible.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether it was the final list. There have been difficulties in obtaining all the information required, partly because some of the food that was distributed was not properly labelled, which is of course contrary to the regulations. All those matters will need to be examined and may or may not form part of subsequent action by the appropriate authorities.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Scottish Office would publish advertisements. As I have already explained, that is a matter for the local health board, but I would certainly encourage it to do so, and my information is that it plans to do so. I agree that it is important that people who purchased food and, perhaps, put it in a freezer or elsewhere, should be aware of the outlets that are suspect. I understand that a large quantity of food has been recovered from those outlets and is now subject to examination.

On research, the chief medical officer told me earlier today that research projects were assessed very much on their merits. I believe that the hon. Gentleman has a valid point, and it is one of the matters on which I would expect Professor Pennington to report.

On whether establishing another quango might be the best way of coping with such matters, there is nothing in the information that has been made available to me to suggest that Lanarkshire health board and the North Lanarkshire local authority and its environmental health officers have done anything other than to discharge their duty under extremely difficult circumstances—which will no doubt become apparent at a later stage—with the utmost distinction.

Photo of Mr Allan Stewart Mr Allan Stewart , East Renfrewshire

I join my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) in expressing the deepest sympathy to the relatives of those who have died and to those who have suffered in this tragic, serious and unexpected epidemic. My right hon. Friend was right to take decisive action by setting up the expert group under Professor Pennington. It will wish to act speedily and thoroughly. In the circumstances, would it be sensible for it to consider issuing an interim report speedily and the more detailed report thereafter? Of course, that will be a matter for the group, but will my right hon. Friend assure the House that that possibility will be borne in mind?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

My hon. Friend's suggestion is helpful. I plan to publish in full Professor Pennington's advice; I am grateful to him for agreeing to undertake this task. I expect him and his colleagues to provide advice as and when it seems appropriate and we shall act on it speedily. Whether it is necessary to publish an interim report will, as my hon. Friend said, be a matter for him. I would like to think that the report could be concluded speedily.

Other procedures will have to be followed. My noble Friend the Lord Advocate will need to consider whether a fatal incident inquiry is required and there may be other legal proceedings. I am anxious that Professor Pennington should get on with his work in parallel with those processes, to alleviate public concern and to avoid a repetition of this disastrous and ghastly outbreak.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I echo the condolences expressed and wish a speedy recovery to those who are suffering. The Secretary of State told the House that information on outlets was provided as soon as it was compiled. That begs the question why it took so long—from last Friday, when the first incidents were reported, until last night—to trace the outlets. Does he have any information on that? He may be aware that an article in The Independent last summer said that the food science laboratory at Torry, Aberdeenshire was at the forefront of E. coli 0157 research. Can he say whether, in the changes and redistribution of staff that followed the closure of the laboratory, the research team has stayed together to continue its work or has been broken up?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was anxious to maintain that expertise in Scotland. Professor Pennington is the foremost expert in the subject and was very much involved in that. I am afraid that The Independent is not on my regular reading list and I am not familiar with the article to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I would be happy to look at it and let him have the detail on it.

On the compilation of the list, the hon. Gentleman will understand why I am reluctant to go into detail. I am not fully familiar with the background, but I have been assured that everything was done to try to get the material together. It depended on getting information from the butcher concerned.

Photo of Mr Archy Kirkwood Mr Archy Kirkwood Liberal Democrat Chief Whip

That would take only 10 minutes.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman says that it would take 10 minutes. At the beginning, the information available may not have been as comprehensive. I understand that every effort was made to establish the information. The difficulties have been compounded by the fact that some of the food was distributed without proper labels and passed to other sources. All those things have created difficulties. Like the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), I have asked some searching questions about the matter and I have been assured that all those involved have done everything possible to acquire the information as speedily and effectively as possible. I believe that that is the situation.

Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Motherwell South

I wish to add my condolences to my constituents and their families, especially the families and friends of the four who have died. I wish a speedy recovery to all those affected.

The immediate concern of everyone in Lanarkshire is that all contaminated cooked meat products should be cleared out of the food supply chain. I met the chief officers of Lanarkshire health board this morning with the public health consultant Dr. Ahmed, who has been in charge moment to moment, as well as the responsible public health officials of North Lanarkshire council and my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid). A first step has been taken by publishing, after unnecessary delay, the known retail outlets of the products of John Barr. The distribution system was informal. As the Secretary of State said, only this morning 11 more channels have come to light. There may be more still to come.

In those circumstances, steps clearly need to be taken to carry the information and advice through to people's homes. Probably the biggest store of contaminated material is now in the fridges and freezers of many people throughout the central belt of Scotland, and those people must be reached. Will the Secretary of State encourage Lanarkshire health board in the conclusion that it reached this morning, that it should publish full display advertisements in the national press, advising people of what to do, the nature of the products, and the sources from which they may have obtained them?

Is the Secretary of State aware that it is not generally understood that freezing does not make contaminated foods safe and that contaminated food that has been put into the freezer and then brought out possibly weeks later can be every bit as dangerous as that which is freshly eaten? Is the Secretary of State aware that all available information channels need to be used urgently to get home the message especially to families with children or old people? Is he aware that people in Lanarkshire will warmly welcome the appointment of Professor Hugh Pennington and the expert group to look into the matter?

There has been a major breach of food hygiene in Lanarkshire and it is important that all possible steps be taken immediately. There is an immediate need for a quick, independent quality control check of the implementation of the current measures. Is the advice getting through to the shops? Are the GPs fully informed? What is happening in homes? Both Lanarkshire health board and North Lanarkshire council would welcome a quick, independent, quality control audit of that nature. Will the Secretary of State ask Professor Pennington to carry it out?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The whole House has considerable sympathy for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents and I thank him for the courteous and typically concerned way in which he has gone about carrying out his duties. I agree with him about the importance of ensuring that the health board makes the information widely available. As he said, it has decided to take advertisements, and I believe that that is the right thing to do. The hon. Gentleman is right about the need to ensure that any food that may have got into freezers is traced. Proper and full cooking will destroy the E. coli bacteria in raw meat. Those who believe that they may have processed meat from one of the sources that have been identified should contact the environmental health officer in their local authority immediately.

The hon. Gentleman asked me for a specific response to the specific suggestion that there should be an immediate quality check from outside, without in any way casting doubt on the quality of the work that has been done by the responsible people in Lanarkshire. That is a sensible suggestion. Whether it should be done by Professor Pennington or through our chief medical officer is a matter on which I would want further advice, but I am happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman's request, if he feels that that would be helpful in restoring or reinforcing confidence within his constituency.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

My right hon. Friend will be aware that all the people of Scotland will now be deeply concerned about the possible impact of this problem, not only in Lanarkshire but elsewhere. I received two telephone calls today—I am sure that other hon. Members have had similar calls—about serious food-related problems, such as sickness, in my constituency. I am no medical expert and I have no idea what those problems are, but I am sure that we have to avoid causing panic. We must also ensure that people are made aware of what the problem really is, and I welcome the setting up of the group under Professor Pennington. I hope that it will produce information that will be helpful in some way, both now and in the future.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right to say that wider concern will be felt. As I said in my statement, all the evidence so far is that the E. coli can be traced to the one butcher's shop—the difficulty has been following the line through all the tributaries. My hon. Friend can reassure his constituents. I am sure that Professor Pennington will want to consider wider measures that we can take to deal with the problem, and I assure my hon. Friend that we shall act speedily and swiftly in response.

Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell , Monklands East

I associate myself with the expressions of condolence. I pay tribute to the medical and nursing staff of Monklands district general hospital in my constituency and of Law hospital in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid).

Given that the medical staff of Monklands hospital were told on Saturday that a crisis of some significant proportions was likely to be visited upon them, why was action not taken at the time when people are most likely to consume cold meats and other meats—that is, immediately after purchase—to ensure that they did not do so? As any housewife would say, it is rather late to start warning people on Thursday not to eat foods that they might have bought on the previous Friday or Saturday.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the lackadaisical attitude displayed by the Scottish Office in alerting people to the dangers of those meats has led to further illness and perhaps to people consuming those meats even at this late stage? Does he further accept that my constituents are grievously concerned about the lack of action and about the fact that local hospital facilities are now sorely stretched, which problem could have been reduced had action been taken earlier?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I know that the hon. Lady is new to the House and may not be aware of the procedures, but the responsibility for a local outbreak is a matter for the environmental health officers of North Lanarkshire local authority and the local health board, and nothing about their actions could be described as lackadaisical. They seem to have carried out their duties properly and efficiently, in a way that no one in the Scottish Office would criticise.

The Scottish Office became involved—as it was required to be—only when it became apparent that the outbreak might not be confined locally, which was well after the weekend. The hon. Lady would do well to wait until she has the facts before she starts to criticise people who have been working extremely hard to protect the welfare and health of her constituents.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

Sympathy and concern, especially for those who are directly involved, must be in the mind of all who think about this problem. However, other thoughts strike us, too. One of the thoughts that strikes me is the fact that awareness of food hygiene and the proper handling of meats is essential for all those involved in the meat production process. It also strikes me that that is perhaps even more important in the light of the concerns that we have expressed in recent times about bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People sometimes complain about regulations, but they are necessary. The clear lesson from this outbreak is that the proper handling of meat products and the proper use of utensils and storage of food is very—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker, it is extremely difficult to speak over the voices of Opposition Members.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. Hon. Members should not be discussing this issue with the shadow spokesman on Scotland, but paying attention to the Secretary of State, who is attempting to answer questions.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am grateful to you for your protection, Madam Speaker.

The proper handling of utensils and the proper storage of food, cooked and uncooked, is very important, and we have taken steps to try to reinforce that practice through the meat trade and through actions by the Scottish Office. It is one matter on which we shall look to the expert group to give further advice.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Aberdeen North

Although I fully accept that the closure of the Tony research laboratory will have had no effect whatever on the current outbreak, does it not serve as a warning that we should not skimp on research on bacteria such as E. coli? Quite apart from looking at food hygiene and distribution, will Professor Pennington examine the original source of E. coli, because where it comes from is just as important as where it went?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that it will not embarrass him when I say that, to a degree, he and I, with the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), made common cause in ensuring that vital research jobs and activities remained in Scotland. I think that the stand that we took is vindicated, and the quality of research carried out in Scotland benefits the whole of the United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to get to the source and also look at the procedures. The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) pointed out that there was uncertainty as to when the list of names should be published. We may need to give clearer guidance about that, but I am certain that the overriding priority, even though it might mean rough justice for some firms, must be public health, particularly when dealing with a bacterium that can have such devastating and fatal consequences.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

I join in the expressions of sympathy for the bereaved and the admiration for the medical staff and others who have had to deal with the implications of this devastating bacterium.

The Secretary of State, in response to local Members of Parliament who said that commercial factors impinged on the release of information, says that the outbreak should not have happened. Can he reassure the House that commercial factors did not impinge on the release of public information?

I welcome Professor Pennington's appointment—he is a world authority on E. coli 0157, and many hon. Members have a great deal of confidence in his judgment. The Secretary of State said that the inquiry will be wide ranging. Will Professor Pennington's team be able to look at the provision of food science research in Scotland, and if the team identifies gaps in that provision, will the Secretary of State give an undertaking to act on them? Will Professor Pennington look at research provision in the animal herd, which is a natural reservoir of E. coli 0157, as many authorities think that that is the key to getting the bacterium under control? Will the Secretary of State revisit the Government's refusal only this summer of research into that? Will the recommendations of the wide-ranging review that the Secretary of State promised be taken on board by the Government, as Scotland has four times the average number of cases of E. coli in the UK and the highest incidence in Europe?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that we shall act on the recommendations, and if there are particular recommendations for research in this area, I can think of no one better qualified than Professor Pennington to give advice in that respect, and we shall certainly act on it.

As for the hon. Gentleman's point about commercial considerations, it clearly would not be responsible to publish a list of names until one was certain that the list corresponded to the businesses that had received the material concerned. I do not know at what stage the list was considered reliable or the basis on which advice was given to hold back publication of the list, but it would be perfectly reasonable for people to be reluctant to provide a list that might blight particular businesses, if they were not entirely satisfied that those businesses had received the product.

It is a difficult balance, and a judgment was made by the health board to publish the list. Rather than adding to its difficulty, we should anticipate that difficulty. I believe that it acted properly and fairly, but it may well be that, with hindsight and the opportunity to look over the incident, additional guidance should be given. The health board decided, exceptionally, to publish the material, and I believe that it was right to do so. The circumstances were exceptional: there was a serious, unprecedented outbreak of a serious form of food poisoning in Scotland.

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew , Carlisle

First, may I record my sympathy for those who have been affected? I am very conscious, however, that Lanarkshire is less than an hour away from Cumbria on the A74. Can the Secretary of State assure me that the health authorities in Cumbria have been kept up to date? Were any Cumbrian outlets supplied by the butcher involved infected? Will the Secretary of State also assure me that, if there is a campaign to educate people about food hygiene, it will not be restricted to Scotland, but will include the whole of Britain?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I have kept my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health well informed about developments. He is as keen as the hon. Gentleman and me to ensure that good practice in health and safety and the handling of food obtains throughout the United Kingdom; indeed, the guidance that has been issued was produced by the Department of Health. As for Cumbria being an hour away from Lanarkshire, I hope that the hon. Gentleman observes the speed limits when he is travelling down the A74.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty , Falkirk East

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the one death in Forth valley that he mentioned occurred at Bonnybridge, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan)? I was informed of that yesterday evening, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would like the concern that he expressed then to be recorded in Hansard.

In fact, there have been a number of outbreaks of food poisoning in the Forth valley area—in the Falkirk council and environmental health department area. Will the Secretary of State confirm that Falkirk's environmental health department and Forth Valley health board are taking seriously the tracing of the Barr outlets, to see whether there are any in the Forth valley area, which is in my constituency and his? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that he will co-ordinate any action with local Members of Parliament in the Forth valley area should outlets be traced to that area?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

As the hon. Gentleman will have heard me say in my answer to the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell), the Scottish Office became involved when it was apparent that affected material was likely to go beyond the immediate area of Lanarkshire's health authorities and local authorities. That is the established procedure for dealing with matters such as this. I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance. I should be happy to write to him, and to the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), who was quoted in this morning's newspapers as expressing concern. I am happy to give that assurance, and to ensure that action is taken.

I was told at 3.15 pm this afternoon that all premises that have been identified as having received material from the butcher's shop, either directly or through a third party, have now been visited by environmental health officers. The food material has been taken away, and is being subjected to analysis. Unfortunately, at the time when I came to the House, it was not possible to obtain further information about whether the E. coli bacterium had been identified in all of the material, but I can tell the House that it has now been established that some gravy in one of the pies from the butcher's shop has been identified as containing the bacterium, which makes the link. I understand that, through our clever DNA process, the bacterium can be typed so that the source can be identified. The cases in Forth valley and Lanarkshire appear to come from the same source, which should reassure the hon. Gentleman's constituents as well as mine.

Photo of Mr Norman Hogg Mr Norman Hogg , Cumbernauld and Kilsyth

The Secretary of State has been generous in his comments about North Lanarkshire council, and in particular the environmental health officers who traced the source of affected products so speedily. On the question of guidelines and guidance for authorities, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether the health board or the local authority is primarily responsible for informing the public of the sources of affected products? Is there some confusion about which authority is responsible? If he intends to issue extended guidelines, will he ensure that they clearly identify who is in the driving seat?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The environmental health officers are responsible for the enforcement of the regulations and the operation in the butcher's shop. When such an outbreak occurs and has wider public health considerations—as it clearly has in this circumstance—it is the health board's responsibility to deal with that. The measures that the hon. Gentleman has called for to alert people to the dangers to public health, and to the actions that they should take to avoid contamination, are matters for the health board. The health board is fully aware of that, and it has acted properly.

The health board's medical officers will work directly with the environmental health officers on the investigation of the line of route by which the bacteria may or may not have been transmitted. Environmental health officers in other local authorities will visit the premises of any other shops or outlets that are involved.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

If I heard him aright, the Secretary of State said that the local health board had placed warning advertisements in the media. Was he referring to newspaper advertisements? Given the fact that more people watch television and listen to local radio than read newspapers, if—and only if—he were approached by the local health board for funding for such advertisements to be carried by television and local radio, would he give such a request serious consideration?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I think that the health board is fully funded for that purpose. but if there were particular difficulties, of course I would give any request serious consideration. I do not often have an opportunity to pay tribute to the Scottish media, but I can do so now. I pay tribute to the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, The Herald, The Scotsman, The Courier—I can even bring myself to pay tribute to the Daily Record—and other broadcasting outlets, some of which have given details in the press today. Advertising will have to be paid for, and the health boards have funds for that purpose. If particular difficulties arise, I shall consider them.

Photo of Thomas McAvoy Thomas McAvoy , Glasgow Rutherglen

I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy offered to the bereaved. I represent a large part of Lanarkshire, so I have an interest in the matter.

The Secretary of State fairly and rightly praised the performance of official bodies in response to this emergency, including the environmental health officers employed by local authorities. Does he accept that if he does not cease his war of attrition on local authorities, whose grants he has cut, he will damage their capacity to respond to such emergencies?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am not aware of having cut the grant of any local authority. We increased local authority provision last year. The announcement that was made after the Chancellor's Budget provides for an increase on the published figures that we said would be the budgets for local authorities this year.

Photo of Mr George Kynoch Mr George Kynoch , Kincardine and Deeside

An increase of £45 million.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

My hon. Friend reminds me that the figure is £45 million. I know that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy) will be concerned about the overall position. We have given a commitment to increase in real terms every year the expenditure of local health boards and the health service in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman has not yet been able to persuade his Front-Bench colleagues to make that commitment, but I look forward to his support when we try to enjoin them to do so.

To make that commitment, I must determine priorities, which means that local authorities must make the reductions in unnecessary expenditure and bureaucracy that, I am sad to say, Labour Members now accuse the health service of making.

Photo of Nigel Griffiths Nigel Griffiths , Edinburgh South

Will the Secretary of State change the procedures today? We do not accept his explanation that, under present procedures, he has to leave the matter to hard-pressed local agencies, which are already trying to combat an outbreak that has reached crisis proportions. Should not the Scottish Office and Scottish Ministers, as soon as they know which outlets are involved in any outbreak, take responsibility for ensuring that the public also receive that information immediately? They should not leave it to the local agencies that are under too much pressure to make statements themselves, because that would mean days lost before the public received any warning. We do not want unnecessary delays.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I believe in devolution—devolution of power down to local agencies. North Lanarkshire council is best able to judge the circumstances in north Lanarkshire, not the Scottish Office in Edinburgh. Lanarkshire health authority is perfectly capable of discharging the duties placed upon it by Parliament. Where those bodies require the help and support of the Scottish Office, they will get it.

It is an odd circumstance that I should be at this Dispatch Box defending the conduct of a Labour-controlled local authority, while the hon. Gentleman suggests that it needs my help and support to carry out its duties. It has carried out its duties extremely well and it can hold its head high.

Regarding the position of the Scottish Office, when there are wider consequences of an outbreak—as occurred and became apparent later in the week—it will be involved. However, the suggestion that, in some way, the environmental health officers delayed in carrying out their duties is not founded on fact, but I am willing to await the outcome of the investigation by the expert group before making a judgment. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman shows the same patience.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram , East Kilbride

As a Lanarkshire Member, I have listened carefully to what the Secretary of State has said. In some of his answers, it became clear that he was trying to absolve himself of partial blame in the matter. Will he confirm that the food hazard warning was not issued until 27 November, five days after the incident had been identified as a major problem, and that his officials were working with the local control team? I must ask him when he first became involved. What was he doing on a day-by-day basis? Why did he not act much earlier on such a major problem?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I think that I have already answered all those questions, but I am happy to do so again. On the publication of the list, I was informed about the situation at 7 o'clock last night. On the overall position, it is true that the hon. Member for Motherwell, South, in whose constituency the outbreak occurred, contacted my office and I wrote to him outlining all the action that was being taken.

The hon. Gentleman criticised apparent delays, but all the information that I have been given shows that those involved acted as speedily as possible. On the question of blame, he might think about paying some respect to the officials in the local authority, the Scottish Office and the CMO, who have worked extremely hard to allay public fears and to carry the matter forward. Not every issue should be turned into a reason for political point scoring across the Floor of the House.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn , Newport West

I thank the Secretary of State for the quality of the very full replies that he has given to me over the past six weeks about the effects of bacteria. His replies were far superior to those that I received from the Secretaries of State for the other countries. Nevertheless, those replies present an alarming picture. Sadly, bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics. We do not know how many deaths are occurring because of that, but we know that the number of patients affected by the hospital bug methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus has increased by 800 per cent. during the past four years. Tragically, one of the victims was the wife of Lord Fitt, who has described the details of her death in very moving terms.

The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) is that we should be wise before the event. Is there a case for examining the increasingly resistant strains of bacteria that result in, for example, tuberculosis, meningitis and many other common diseases?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I know that the hon. Gentleman has made a careful study of those matters, which are of great interest to him. I should be happy to draw his remarks to the attention of Professor Pennington and of our chief medical officer in Scotland and, in the light of the hon. Gentleman's comments, to ask for further advice. I cannot respond more directly than that because I have to confess that I do not have the same knowledge as him in the matter.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

May I ask a couple of brief questions that arise from the exchanges? First, the Secretary of State was at the Dispatch Box for 45 minutes before he volunteered the information that E. coli bacteria might have been in the gravy in a pie. Why did it take so long for that critical information to be given?

Secondly, the Secretary of State tried keenly to avoid any connection between his Department and the decision to delay publication of the outlets that might have had the contaminated product, but even his statement says: Following detailed consultations late on 26 November"— Tuesday this week— between Scottish Office officials and the local control team certain decisions were made about the food hazard warning. That was 24 hours before the announcement of the full list of outlets and the critically important information. I am aware that responsibility may lie at local level, but why was his Department involved at that stage and what advice was it giving?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

As to the point about the gravy in the pie and why it was not in the statement, the chief medical officer informed me about that just after 3 o'clock and I informed the House of it because I was asked a specific question about it. At the beginning of the statement, the hon. Gentleman was complaining that he had not had the information—[Interruption. The hon. Gentleman is asking me a question and I am trying to answer it—[Interruption.]

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I have had enough of seated interventions.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The comments of a Front Bencher on this matter should not create excitement on the Bench behind.

The chief medical officer has told me that the first tests have shown that E. coli bacteria might have been in the gravy in the pie. I made the point in the context of the fact that the food that had been collected from the other outlets had not yet been tested, so we are not in a position to say whether the E. coli could be identified.

On why the Scottish Office was involved, I explained that earlier. It became involved when it became apparent that the outbreak went beyond the boundaries of the local authority and of the health board concerned. It is true that the chief medical officer said that the information would not be published. That was on the advice of the local authority, which had gathered the information and knew the circumstances surrounding it. I have explained the sort of consideration that would apply in deciding whether to publish it and I have said that we might need to consider that matter with a view to future guidance.

I have spent quite a lot of time talking to the people involved. Nothing that I have heard suggests to me that those involved in dealing with the epidemic have done anything other than act as speedily and as effectively as possible, and with the full public interest at the forefront of their minds. We must now get on and ensure that the necessary processes are completed. The inquiry will be conducted by Professor Pennington. We shall publish his report. If there have been shortcomings, they will be there for all to see, and the House will have an opportunity to discuss the matter and to consider the facts in the cool light of day.