E. Coli (Pennington Report)

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 15th January 1997.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling 3:31 pm, 15th January 1997

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the interim report from Professor Pennington's expert group, copies of which are available in the Vote Office. The whole House will wish to thank Professor Pennington and his colleagues for the speed with which they have reported. Quite properly, they wish to reflect further on some of the issues before finalising their report by the end of February.

Professor Pennington was asked to examine the circumstances that led to the outbreak, and to advise me on the implications for food safety and general lessons to be learned. He has focused on four key areas: research, surveillance, enforcement and the handling of an outbreak. This outbreak has raised some fundamental questions about current food safety procedures in relation to the threat posed by E. coli 0157. E. coli 0157 should be seen in its proper context: it is much more virulent than most other causes of food poisoning, and requires a smaller infective dose than other organisms such as salmonella.

On research, Professor Pennington recommends work in two main areas—knowledge of the prevalence in livestock of the particular type of E. coli that caused the recent outbreak, and more accurate methods of typing E. coli strains using DNA fingerprinting. I have given instructions that that work should be done as a matter of urgency in consultation with the relevant research bodies, including the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food. We have a wealth of clinical information from the treatment of about 1,000 patients during the outbreak. I therefore propose to commission an analysis of that information, which will help to develop our knowledge of the natural history of the infection and assist the management of outbreaks. I am asking Professor Pennington to consider that in his final report.

To back up research and help the understanding and control of food poisoning outbreaks, good surveillance, data collection and disease analysis are clearly essential. Although the report does not indicate that the current mechanisms caused any difficulties in the present outbreak, it suggests that more systematic arrangements in Scotland would be helpful.

The report therefore recommends that urgent consideration be given to introducing improvements to surveillance and that proposals be worked up to permit electronic reporting and analysis of data. I fully support those recommendations, and my Department is already taking action to make more systematic the way in which food poisoning data are reported from laboratories in Scotland. I will make resources available for the establishment of an electronic reporting system.

Professor Pennington makes several recommendations on enforcement. Existing arrangements on food hygiene are based on European Union directives, brought into force by regulations under the Food Safety Act 1990. The codes of practice under the Act were widely consulted upon and, of course, they were laid before the House.

Professor Pennington recommends urgent consideration of the legislation and action, through licensing, to ensure that equivalent standards of hygiene apply to premises principally selling to the final consumer as to those premises subject to the Meat Products (Hygiene) Regulations. He also recommends urgent action to ensure physical separation of raw and cooked meat products by using separate counters, refrigerated equipment and separate staff. Pending the outcome of consideration of the legislation, he recommends that the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food should be asked to review its guidance on cross-contamination. I have asked it to do so.

The recommendations have far-reaching implications. I have instructed my officials to examine the practical implications of the recommendations and, in doing so, to consult consumers, health professionals, environmental health officers, processors and retailers. It would be helpful to Professor Pennington to have more detailed information on the practical aspects. Therefore, with that in mind, I have asked the Meat and Livestock Commission—the Government's statutory advisers on the industry—to carry out an urgent study of the issues so that Professor Pennington can take them into account in his final report.

Professor Pennington made three recommendations on the codes of practice under the Food Safety Act 1990, all of which my colleagues and I accept. He recommends first a review of code of practice 16, which relates to the food hazard warning system. That system, operated by the Government, is to warn environmental health departments of possible or actual food hazards on the basis of information from other areas. Professor Pennington concludes that the difficulty for food authorities is setting the balance between dealing with routine matters at local level and advising central Government of emerging problems.

As code of practice 16 is currently written, the decision to notify central Government is a judgment made locally. Professor Pennington suggests that it may be better to define an "isolated incident" as one which is contained within the boundaries of the food authority. It should, however, be incumbent upon that authority to notify central Government the moment that it has evidence that food distribution is beyond the local authority boundary. It would also be essential to retain the "major local incident" provision so that central Government are informed immediately even if the problem is contained within the authority's area but involves a significant number of people, an organism such as E. coli 0157 or a problem such as botulism.

An allied recommendation is that the code should place greater emphasis on risk and assessment of all factors relevant to protection of the public. That key addition would cover such matters as the organism's virulence, the extent of the food's distribution, the consumer group's vulnerability and the confidence that could be attached to product recall. The revision would make it clear that careful assessment of the risk involved is fundamental to informing decisions.

Professor Pennington also recommends a review of code of practice 9, on food hygiene inspections, to ensure better targeting of resources on high-risk premises.

I accept all those recommendations. Good lines of communication from local to central Government and timely release by local outbreak control teams of information to the public are crucial, as the paramount consideration must always be the protection of public health. Similarly, I agree that there should be careful targeting of resources on the high-risk premises. This guidance for enforcement officers will be reflected in the revised codes of practice which will go out to consultation shortly.

Professor Pennington makes observations on the potential for cross-contamination in slaughterhouses, focusing specifically on the slaughtering of cattle in a clean condition. My Department is pursuing this issue with the Meat Hygiene Service, which is well advanced in preparing practical guidance on the definition of acceptable standards of cleanliness in animals presented for slaughter.

Hazard analysis improves food safety by focusing on critical points in the preparation and handling of food. Professor Pennington therefore recommends that the implementation of these requirements be accelerated, particularly for high-risk premises which handle raw and cooked foods. I agree. My Department will urge environmental health departments to take early action on it, so that hazard analysis covers all high-risk premises in their area as soon as possible.

Finally, on enforcement, Professor Pennington recommends, in the longer term, a review of the health risk condition contained in the Food Safety Act 1990, which governs, among other matters, the actions taken by environmental health officers in emergencies. The key question is whether the present position unreasonably inhibits environmental health officers in, for example, taking decisions under the emergency prohibition provisions in section 12 of the Act to close premises merely on suspicion of connection with an outbreak. I have asked my officials to examine the practical operation of the emergency powers available to EHOs as a matter of urgency and in doing so to consult consumers, health professionals, environmental health officers, processors and retailers.

On handling an outbreak, Professor Pennington recommends that every health board and local authority should make sure that they have in place joint plans, as required by the existing Scottish Office guidance, setting out mechanisms and procedures for dealing with them when they occur.

Professor Pennington also emphasises the importance of having one person leading the team, which should be able to act and take decisions as it sees fit. I agree on the importance of clear leadership and with Professor Pennington's expectation that this would most likely come from the health board. I also agree that the local authorities and the health boards must delegate to the team maximum powers to take the necessary action.

I propose to invite health boards and local authorities in Scotland to review their procedures and let me have their response to Professor Pennington's interim recommendations by the time he produces his final report.

Professor Pennington also suggests that the Scottish Office should review the present guidelines on the investigation and control of outbreaks and endorses the creation of a Scottish Office team under the chief medical officer as was done for this outbreak. I agree.

This has been an extremely serious and tragic outbreak, one of the worst of its sort in the world. I am grateful to Professor Pennington and his colleagues for producing their interim report so quickly. I have set out today the Government's response to the interim recommendations. This is a matter to which the Government will attach the utmost priority in the coming months.

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

I thank the Secretary of State for that statement and pay tribute to Professor Pennington and his expert team for the speed with which they have prepared the report for us. Given that it is, however, an interim report, we shall look forward to reading the full one in the next couple of months and to seeing the considered conclusions on what is, by any standards, a very grave issue.

Let me say at the outset that I welcome many of Professor Pennington's recommendations, in particular those on licensing procedures, emergency planning and the aspects of food regulations that he considered. I welcome the fact that the Government have accepted so many of those recommendations.

We of course welcome the extra money promised for research, but will the Secretary of State confirm that Professor Pennington asked the Government for research funding as far back as last November but was denied it? Why is it only now, after 16 people have died and more than 400 have been affected by this most horrifying of illnesses, that the funds are being made available and the research is being belatedly done? Is it not a classic example of the way in which the Government have treated every food crisis that they have faced—ignoring medical advice, reacting to events rather than shaping them, and always too little, too late?

On a specific but central issue, will the review of the food safety guidelines examine our concerns that the present guidelines, particularly on the publishing of information on outlets that might be affected, are skewed towards the commercial interest at the expense of that of the consumer? Professor Pennington's report—the public will appreciate that we have had only a few minutes to consider it—says clearly in paragraph 4.2.13: There is a risk that in certain circumstances the existing guidance might restrict the dissemination of information to the public. It goes on to say: It is clear that any advice in the Code should indicate that where Risk Assessment suggests a risk to public health exists then disclosure of information is relevant. He clearly implies that the current guidelines are restricting information to the public. Will that lead to an immediate review of the guidelines? Will those commercially biased guidelines, which led to consumers still buying contaminated foodstuffs long after the outbreak had been detected, stay in place in the interim? That would be intolerable, given what we know and what Professor Pennington has said.

Does the Secretary of State accept that Professor Pennington's inquiry cannot address the role of the Scottish Office and, more importantly for avoiding a repetition of such an emergency, the role of Scottish Office Ministers in the handling of this tragedy? The public expect those issues to be dealt with by the fatal accident inquiry, but does the Secretary of State accept that that public inquiry is unlikely to begin its work for some months—not until after the general election? That delay does not mean that Ministers should not give us a full and frank account now of their role in this affair.

Above all, will the Secretary of State answer the central question, to which he has signally failed to give a credible answer so far: what advice, if any, did his Minister responsible for health—the Minister of State, Scottish Office—give on the publication of the list of outlets? To be fair, the Secretary of State told the House in his first statement on the issue that, once he became aware of the problem with the list of outlets, his advice was to publish it. However, by then the decision to publish had already been taken by Lanarkshire health board. Given that the Minister responsible for health must have been aware of that list and the controversy surrounding it long before then, what was his advice to the local authorities? Why were the public of North Lanarkshire and central Scotland kept in the dark for so long? By the first weekend, the bacteria had spread beyond North Lanarkshire and Forth Valley health board had been involved. Will the Secretary of State explain why the Scottish Office did not instruct the local agencies to issue the information to the public? Is not it true that his Department's official, with the support of the acquiescence of the Scottish Office Minister responsible for health, told local agencies that the guidelines prohibited publication?

Let me say, in all seriousness, that the reason why we continue to ask questions has nothing to do with partisan advantage; it is that Ministers keep dodging our questions and refusing to answer them. Is it not time that the Secretary of State finally stopped passing the buck and gave us a full and frank account of his Minister's role in the crisis and gave the public the answers that they deserve?

Finally, is not the more general lesson to be learnt from this whole tragedy that in matters of food safety the interests of the consumer must always take precedence over profit? Why will Ministers not establish the food standards agency that we and so many others have proposed to ensure that food safety has the priority that the public expect?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courteous remarks and his thanks to Professor Pennington. I also thank him for his welcome for the interim recommendations in that report and the Government's response to them.

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman in the friendliest possible way that this really is not the territory for party political point scoring.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman says, "Of course it is." The report deals with a complex and difficult situation in which a number of people have died. It raises complicated issues of food safety and regulation and it is important that it is examined carefully.

The hon. Gentleman made specific points in respect of research funding. He asked me whether the Scottish Office had refused to fund the proposals that we have said today that we will support. We did not. However, Professor Pennington was asked to reformulate one proposal that he put to the Scottish Office. The hon. Gentleman must recognise that we do not fund research simply because of the nature of the subject—E. coli 0157. The nature of the research and what it intends to achieve has to be considered and the Government act on the basis of expert advice. As I have repeatedly told the House, we are spending more than £2 million on research into these matters. As I have told the House, the specific research that has been recommended by Professor Pennington will be carried out.

The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the research is simply reacting to events is correct in so far as it arises from recent experience and will help us, but he was incorrect to suggest that we have not been prepared to support research that is soundly based and has been commended to the Government by their advisers.

In regard to publishing information, the hon. Gentleman described the code of practice as being "skewed towards the commercial interest". The code of practice was laid before the House. The Food Safety Act 1990 was subject to considerable debate and there was a consensus across the Floor of the House about the value of that regulation. I do not believe that hon. Members would not have objected to a code of practice that was "skewed towards the commercial interest".

I gave the hon. Gentleman advance notice of the report in which Professor Pennington deals with that point and demonstrates that it is possible to interpret the guidance in respect of publication in a way that might result in people not making information available because of concern about damaging commercial interests.

North Lanarkshire local authority decided not to publish information on the basis of the code of practice, but Forth Valley health board and Falkirk local authority decided to publish the information on the basis of the same code of practice. So there is an issue of interpretation. The hon. Gentleman asked me whether that would be addressed. As I said in my statement, we shall accept Professor Pennington's recommendations in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman said that the report could not address the role of the Scottish Office. It does so. Just for the sake of clarity, in respect of the conduct of the Scottish Office and the local authority, Professor Pennington concludes that overall the procedures worked well. The outbreak was a major one, concerning a particularly virulent organism, and there are of course lessons to be learned. Professor Pennington commends the procedure that was established under the chief medical officer in the Scottish Office for dealing with the outbreak.

The hon. Gentleman says that the fatal accident inquiry will not be available for some months. He knows that that is because there are criminal proceedings and the matter is sub judice, which makes it even more difficult for me to go into some of the detail on which he seeks to press me. The fatal accident inquiry cannot take place until such time as the criminal proceedings have been followed, and he knows that.

The hon. Gentleman criticised us for having a fatal accident inquiry as the form of public inquiry. Given that there are criminal proceedings, we will be able to proceed with a public inquiry under the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1976 more rapidly than we would have been able to had we adopted the hon. Gentleman's preferred solution, which was a public inquiry as a stand-alone procedure, as was conducted after the Dunblane tragedy.

The hon. Gentleman really must stop seeking to score points against my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. I have set out what happened on two occasions. If he wishes me to spell it out again, the answer to his question why the publication of the list of outlets was delayed is that the decision was taken by North Lanarkshire council, which is controlled by his party. He should be in a position to ask his party leaders why that decision was taken. I imagine that they would give him the same answer as I have given: the officials of that council, like my right hon. Friend and my officials, acted quite properly and in the public interest. They deserve better support from the hon. Gentleman than he is giving them.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

We all welcome Professor Pennington's report, but may I suggest that my right hon. Friend awaits the outcome of the fatal accident inquiry and the publication of the full report before he embarks on legislation later this year? It seems that the report's great emphasis is on the fact that there should have been early co-operation and co-ordination between the local council and the local health board when the scare, which latterly turned out to be a disaster, occurred. Should he not immediately introduce guidelines so that such failure does not happen again?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. It is essential that we get this right. I received Professor Pennington's report on new year's eve and read it on new year's day. We had a meeting of officials on 3 January. The Cabinet sub-committee established by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister met the following week and we have acted speedily. Professor Pennington says that his recommendations are interim and that they may change, but I am sure that it is right for us to get on with consultation.

The hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and his colleagues criticised me for establishing Professor Pennington's expert group on the basis that it would not be independent. It does not fall foul of sub judice provisions and enables us to take immediate action in respect of wider issues. I hope that all hon. Members and people outside the House will use this opportunity to contribute to ensure that we get the best regime of regulation. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) that it should be based on partnership. I commend the material that has been submitted by the hon. Members for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) and for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith), which I have passed to Professor Pennington. It is exactly the kind of constructive contribution to this debate that we would like.

Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Motherwell South

As the families of too many of my constituents have discovered, dying from E. coli is a horrible way to die. In view of the long delays that people in my constituency will face due to the trial and the fatal accident inquiry, will the Secretary of State issue forthwith for rapid consultation the changes that are needed in the codes of practice on the closing of shops and the publication of information? The present misleading, misguided codes are prejudicing action in Lanarkshire, and no doubt elsewhere.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the constructive way in which he has helped my office and kept it informed. It has obviously been extremely difficult for him as the hon. Member who has been affected by this dreadful outbreak. As I said in my statement, we will consult immediately on the recommendations in Professor Pennington's report on those codes of practice. It is important that we get them right, but I do not believe that there is an environmental health officer in the country who is not following this statement carefully. I have taken steps today to ensure that they are all aware of the statement in the House and that they all receive copies of Professor Pennington's report so that they can act on the basis of that experience and advice in order to avoid the difficulty pointed out by the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Allan Stewart Mr Allan Stewart , East Renfrewshire

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the public will be greatly reassured by the comprehensive nature of the interim report by Professor Pennington and his colleagues and by the Government's positive reaction to it? On a specific point about surveillance, my right hon. Friend talked about an electronic reporting system. How long does he expect it will be before that is set up? Can he tell the House generally how he anticipates that the final report and the Government's response to it will be handled in the House?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. On surveillance, I expect the electronic reporting system to cost about £250,000. I do not know how long it will take to put it in place, but we want to see that happen as speedily as is practicable. Obviously, we have had these recommendations and I have accepted them and we now need to ensure that the necessary work is put in hand to carry them out. I do not wish to tie Professor Pennington down to a time scale, but I expect to receive his report by the end of February. I expect that hon. Members will want to study it carefully. It will have wide-ranging implications for not just Scotland but the whole of the United Kingdom. It is for hon. Members to indicate the way in which they would like us to proceed. Whether there should be a statement or a debate is a matter best assessed at the time. Obviously it will require serious consideration by the House.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in making the recommendations for further research, including research to help gauge the prevalence of and forecast future outbreaks of E. coli 0157, Professor Pennington found that the strain in the present outbreak belonged to the same sub-clone as that which caused the West Lothian outbreak—due to the contamination of the pasteurised milk supply—and the Grampian cluster of cases in 1994? Given that the West Lothian outbreak was the largest of its type in the world, will the Secretary of State accept that this was not just research generally into E. coli 0157? Is there any overlap or similarity between the research that Professor Pennington is recommending in this report and the research that was requested by Professor Pennington and his team at an earlier stage and which was batted back to him?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the detail about this. I can tell him, for example, that one of the projects rejected was in respect of a piece of equipment. Another piece of research that is recommended—I am not familiar with the detail—is specifically related to this outbreak. The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the importance of the milk case in Lothian and the connection there. In making his recommendations, Professor Pennington took account of the experience of that outbreak.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

This has been a terrible episode in Scotland's history, albeit a short-term one. I commend my right hon. Friend and Professor Pennington on the production of the report, but I am slightly concerned about the comments made on enforcement. Butcher businesses across the country are often small, family businesses and they have a very good record. I noted the comments on enforcement and I would hate to think that we would rush into making legislative changes to licensing without tremendous consideration. I ask my right hon. Friend to take that point on board.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I made a point of talking to the Meat and Livestock Commission yesterday about Professor Pennington's recommendations. Throughout the industry, it is understood that it is in the interests of the industry as well as the consumer to have the highest standards and to put the protection of public health first. Equally, it is in the interests of protecting public health for regulation to be sensible, enforceable and practicable. Therefore, I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to give proper consideration to the issue, but we must ensure that we have practical and effective steps in place to enable, for example, the separation of raw and cooked meat. I know that that view is shared by butchers, producers and everyone else in the industry. We simply cannot afford to have virulent organisms transmitted with the tragic results that we have seen in Lanarkshire.

Photo of Sam Galbraith Sam Galbraith , Strathkelvin and Bearsden

I welcome Professor Pennington's suggestion that in future any outbreak is managed by one person and that that person should come from the health board. I suggest that we look no further than the director of public health and that would take us some way towards reintroducing the medical officer of health. Does the Minister agree that had such a system been in place we might not have had the delay in the publication of the outlets, which was one of the major problems in the management of the outbreak?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am reluctant to jump to conclusions about the judgments that were made in this case. The officials were acting in difficult circumstances and the speed with which the organism was transmitted and the numbers of cases multiplied was considerable. All the evidence I have seen persuades me that everybody involved acted in good faith. The hon. Gentleman put forward a proposal to bring back the medical officer of health role in the context of the post-1974 reorganisation. He and the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) have set out that proposal in a well-argued short paper which I have passed to Professor Pennington with a request that he consider it.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that one person should be in charge. Professor Pennington says that that person should probably be the health professional. I am inclined to agree with the hon. Gentleman's view that the one person should always be the health professional, but that is a matter for Professor Pennington to reflect on further. There are circumstances—for example, particular types of outbreak—in which having one person in charge may not be appropriate. Some argue that the position should be left flexible and open, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's representations will play an important part before we reach a conclusion on that issue by the end of February.

Photo of John Reid John Reid , Motherwell North

May I take this opportunity to thank everyone who was involved in responding to the epidemic, including all the officials and especially the health workers who acted so magnificently? I welcome Professor Pennington's report and the comprehensive way in which he has addressed the issues. May I especially welcome his comments on the reappraisal and review of section 16 of the code of conduct, of the guidelines and of the emergency powers of prohibition in the hands of environmental health officers? All the existing codes of conduct, guidelines and powers enshrine the dilemma, which has to be worked out by officials, between protecting the public interest and protecting commercial interests.

Does the Secretary of State accept that although Parliament never intended that commercial interests should predominate when the matters are weighed in the balance, our experience of E. coli, BSE and other epidemics shows that when officials have to make a decision, commercial interests can on occasion predominate over public health? Will he give an assurance that if the review illustrates that that can happen, and to make sure that public health is always "paramount"—the word he used—consideration will be given to separating the public health issue through an independent food standards agency?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I agreed with a large part of what the hon. Gentleman said until he got to the last bit, as there was a break in his logic. At the end of the day, an environmental health officer has to make a judgment and guidance is given as to how that judgment can be made. It is difficult to make that judgment, as it depends on the circumstances—none of us here knows all the circumstances in this case—and it may or may not be the judgment that other people with the same facts might make. I do not see how the existence of a food agency will affect whether or not people make the right or wrong judgment in particular circumstances.

Although Professor Pennington's report suggests that we should look at the wording of the code of practice—a matter underlined by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid)—I do not see that it is possible to argue that the wording resulted in a particular judgment being made that reflected commercial interest. In Falkirk, a judgment was made to publish the information, but that judgment was not made in the case of North Lanarkshire. It is certainly true that there is scope for clarifying the wording, and that is what Professor Pennington has recommended. I will be consulting on that, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that recommendation and the Government's response. But it is wrong for people not to recognise how difficult these situations are, and it is wrong to believe that it is possible to write a set of rules that will guarantee that a particular course of action is taken on every occasion.

Photo of Mr John Garrett Mr John Garrett , Norwich South

Why have the Government recently cut £2 million from the budget of the Food Research Institute in Norwich, when that institute was a pioneer in studying the causes and effects of E. coli infection? In retrospect, was that not a mistaken judgment?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I do not answer as the Minister responsible from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food who would have taken that decision. I must put my hands up and say that when the Tony laboratory in Aberdeen was threatened with closure, I was among those who argued for the retention of research into not just E. coli but other food-related issues in Scotland. It may be that what happened in England had something to do with the reversal of the previous decision that was taken early last year, whereby we decided, as a result of proposals put forward by scientists in the north-east, to retain more of the research in Scotland. I am sure that I have the support of Opposition Members who represent Scottish constituencies in that respect.

Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan , Falkirk West

Bearing in mind the fact that it is the duty of the Government to ensure that public health should always takes precedence over private commercial considerations, is the Secretary of State trying to tell us that neither he nor any of his Ministers had any responsibility whatever for the delay in notifying the general public about the infected food outlets, including the outlets in my constituency? That delay led to the deaths of several people. How on earth can there be full confidence in Professor Pennington's inquiry when the inquiry team includes one of the Secretary of State's senior officials who was closely involved in handling the matter under investigation?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is yes. That is precisely what I am telling him. His attack on the integrity of the Pennington group is unworthy. The group includes the chief medical officer and other professionals, and several people from outside who would not in any way be associated with any report or investigation that did not examine the facts and issue an objective and professional response. I hope that on reflection the hon. Gentleman will think that his question was unwise, to say the least.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

May I acknowledge that the Scottish Office and the Pennington committee followed up the plea that I made in Hamilton that they should consider the experience of the alleged—I choose that word carefully—Redhouse dairy outbreak in West Lothian and that they saw Mr. Alec Campbell and Mr. Crawford Morgan, representing the council, who had experience of that agonising affair? Any outbreak of E. coli is an agony.

Will the Secretary of State reflect on what several West Lothian councillors and officials have said: that they would have acted much more quickly and would have been able to do more had they not been inhibited by the actions and demands of the insurance companies? The insurance companies' wishes were an extremely serious matter, because the damages could have been enormous. In the course of the further inquiries, could the role and the requirements of the insurance companies be examined?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. That aspect has not been considered by Professor Pennington, although he certainly took account of the experience with the West Lothian outbreak in making his interim recommendations. The new point with respect to the insurers is one on which I would welcome further information, and I shall certainly ensure that it is investigated.

The hon. Member for Hamilton said earlier that he accepted that I had been informed about the matter on the Wednesday, when the information had not been made public, and that I had said that it should be. The publication of information that may or may not be right and that may cause damage to businesses is certainly a consideration, but my view at the time was that the public health interest must be paramount. It is, of course, easier for a Secretary of State to say that and to take responsibility than for officials operating where there are difficult judgments to be made.

As the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) will acknowledge, the provision in the code is often interpreted as meaning that the information has to be accurate because it might damage businesses; but it has to be accurate also because, if made public, it might have an important effect on public health. For example, if the wrong set of batch numbers were given to the public for tins of food infected by botulism, the result would be catastrophic. Professor Pennington points to the essential question of interpretation.

Hon. Members saw the code, it was consulted on, and everyone accepted it. Now that we have had the experience both in Lanarkshire and in the constituency of the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), we must learn the lessons and make a change. That is precisely what we intend to do.

Photo of Mr Toby Jessel Mr Toby Jessel , Twickenham

Can the results of all that careful work be made available to seek to protect the health of people in England and Wales as well? In that connection, has my right hon. Friend had, or does he intend to have, discussions with English and Welsh Ministers?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friends the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and to my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Wales and for Health. They have worked speedily in the ad hoc group that was set up, involving other Ministers, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Lord President, to ensure that we have a United Kingdom response to and awareness of the experience in Scotland. Work is already under way on a number of initiatives that will inform the actions of my right hon. Friends as we proceed and receive a response from the consumer and health interests that will want to take part in the discussions.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

May I put it to the Secretary of State that the job of Opposition Members is to ask key questions in the House on matters of public concern? It is his job to try to answer them, and not to complain about being asked a question every time it touches on the performance of Ministers or officials.

I welcome Professor Pennington's report, as I welcomed his appointment. The wide-ranging nature of his recommendations show the gaps and weaknesses in the current system.

Concern has been expressed that a fatal accident inquiry will not necessarily examine the performance and policies of Ministers. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, at some point during the fatal accident inquiry, he and his Ministers will face questions about when they had information and what action they took, and that they will do so even if they are no longer in office when it takes place?

It is clear from the Pennington report that Scotland has a particular problem with E. coli 0157. The problem existed well before the tragedy in Lanarkshire and Forth Valley—we had the outbreak in West Lothian and the cluster of cases in Grampian. In paragraph 2.2 of his report, Professor Pennington says: No information about the prevalence/incidence of the sub-clone in Scottish cattle or other animals is now available. Is not that statement a damning indictment, given the fact that the total funding of Scottish research into this particularly Scottish problem amounted to £500,000 during a six-year period?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that one of the areas of research in which Professor Pennington recommends that work should be undertaken is exactly the area for which he and his Ministers turned down a research proposal some months ago which would have cost £40,000? Will he pledge that never again will lack of funds prevent Scottish scientists from addressing this public health problem, which, as the report says, has a particular Scottish dimension?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am happy to stand at the Dispatch Box and deal with criticisms of Ministers and Government policy. I am also happy, as a Minister, to attend any fatal accident inquiry, either before or after the election.

What the hon. Gentleman said about research into E. coli in Scotland is not correct. I do not know why he lays emphasis on the importance of my answering questions, if he will not listen to the answers and keeps asking me the same question. I shall tell the hon. Gentleman for the third time that, as he knows, research is commissioned, in the main, by other Departments and not by the Scottish Office. The Scottish Office is not in the lead: we are a united kingdom. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that there is a £2 million research programme into E. coli, yet he persists in making this point.

It is true that there is a higher incidence of E. coli in cattle in Scotland, and we are anxious to discover why that should be.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman might like to know that when the chief executive of McDonald's came into my office the other day, I tried to press him to buy Scottish beef and to put Scottish beef in his hamburgers. One of the reasons that the chief executive of McDonald's gave for having difficulty in doing so was that he kept hearing the hon. Gentleman saying that Scotland has a higher incidence of E. coli 0157. The hon. Gentleman should know that the highest standards are applied in the beef industry and to the production of beef in Scotland.

We are prepared to move forward on research that we are told by experts is appropriate. We have commissioned further research as a result of Professor Pennington's recommendations. The hon. Gentleman should start thinking about the wider public interest instead of making narrow, nationalist, partisan comments.

Several hon. Members:

rose

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

I intend to call hon. Members who are rising, but I ask for brisk questions and brisk answers, because time is moving on.

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

May I support my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) in saying that there is a strong case for looking at how crises of this sort are managed by those in authority? I draw a parallel between what has happened in this case, which occurred in my local authority area, and what happened in Aberdeen 33 years ago, when Dr. Ian McQueen was visibly very much in charge of the situation. The management and direction of policy were never in doubt. Will the Secretary of State examine the Aberdeen experience, even though it was 33 years ago, because valuable lessons could be learned?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have already asked for information on that. As he said, the hon. Members for Strathkelvin and Bearsden and for Kirkcaldy have been pressing on that. I was brought up in the north-east and I remember the outbreak very well. With the passage of time, it may appear now to have been more easily handled than it did at the time. There were criticisms about pubs being closed and so on; there was some controversy. The hon. Gentleman's basic point that there should be one person in overall charge is powerful and is reflected in the existing guidance. Professor Pennington suggests that that person should, as a rule, be a health professional rather than an environmental health professional. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise such issues.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is always fair-minded. I do not know what will be the outcome of the fatal accident inquiry, but I think that the behaviour of some of the Scottish National party councillors in his constituency, and the way in which they have sought to carry out a witch hunt against officials performing their task, was disgraceful. There is nothing in the Pennington report about the conduct of officials; that is for another day, after the criminal proceedings. The last thing that we need is people attacking public officials to make party political points. I hope that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who takes an interest in this matter, will dissociate himself from such behaviour.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice , Pendle

Is not the Government's record on food safety appalling? The number of deaths from food poisoning has risen from 94 in 1990 to 203 in 1995. Have not outbreaks of E. coli poisoning increased fivefold since 1990, when the Food Safety Act was passed? This is not a Scottish problem. There was an E. coli outbreak in my constituency over Christmas. There were no deaths, thank goodness, but nine people were affected. The source of the infection was never found. Is not there a compelling case for a food standards agency separate from the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department and a parallel agency to deal with England and Wales? Is not such separation essential?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

If there is a powerful case, I do not know what it is. Professor Pennington has not made such a recommendation. It is for the hon. Gentleman to make that case. I do not understand how a quango would ease the conduct of investigations to identify the source of E. coli 0157. It is a very virulent organism, and as few as 10 can transmit the disease. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that this is a United Kingdom problem; indeed, it is a worldwide problem. The tabloid press will call it a super-bug, which is a good way to describe its characteristics. It is easily transmissible and has damaging effects, especially on elderly people and children. It is not very new Labour of him to blame the Government for every problem. He is right that there are more and more cases of food poisoning, but I do not think that it is the Government's fault. He is right that the Food Safety Act was passed in 1990; it was welcomed by Government and Opposition Members. No political party has a monopoly on trying to achieve the highest standards of public health.

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

On a broader note, if I heard the Secretary of State aright, he said that existing arrangements on food hygiene are based on European Union directives. Given the all-embracing power of European over domestic legislation, does he believe that those European directives are seriously flawed or that the Food Safety Act does not match their requirements? If there is a discrepancy between the European legislation and the domestic legislation, in the interests of the consumer should not the problem be addressed?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I certainly think that the announcements that I have made today and Professor Pennington's report make it clear that there is scope for amending the codes of practice and considering the regulations and the legislation in light of our experience of this outbreak. As a general principal I believe that the House should decide what is right for our country and take the necessary measures. If there are constraints in terms of European legislation, we need to remove them, not feel inhibited about doing what we believe is right for our country.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram , East Kilbride

The Secretary of State informed the House that, in accordance with existing guidelines, joint plans between the health boards and the local authorities should have been in place to deal with such outbreaks. If we can infer from that statement that such joint plans are not in place, surely the Scottish Office has been remiss in ensuring that its own guidelines have been properly adhered to.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I did not make any implication at all. I simply sought to inform the House of the facts, which are that Professor Pennington's report includes the recommendation that arrangements should be made for the local health board and the local authority to act together, with someone in charge. I did not imply that that was not the position in Lanarkshire—that is a matter for the fatal accident inquiry. I reported to the House that the Scottish Office guidelines require that to be done. I did not say that it was not being done; I merely reported what the professor had recommended and what the guidelines provided. I told the House that I would be asking all local authorities and health boards to let us know precisely what arrangements they had in place by the time Professor Pennington concluded his report. I would expect our professional local authorities and health boards in Scotland to be complying with the existing guidance and to take account of Professor Pennington's recommendations.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

Why does it take a tragedy of this magnitude to get any action out of the Government when official statistics show that there is an epidemic of food poisoning in Scotland? In 1970, 858 cases were notified, but in 1995 that figure was more than 9,000, and in 1996, it was more than 10,000. Is not the reality—the problem—that the Government's passion for deregulation, as articulated by the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) earlier today, is entirely incompatible with proper health and safety?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

No, it is not, and the hon. Gentleman would do well to read the paper produced by the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, the introduction to which touches on some of the reasons why there are more cases of food poisoning.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman says that it is deregulation. In part, the increase reflects people's lifestyle—the food they eat, how they eat it and the fact that they are eating out more often. It is a complex subject. The hon. Gentleman asserts that the increase is due to deregulation. I challenge him to give an example of deregulation in that area since 1990—there has been no food deregulation. I was the Minister responsible for health and safety—we got rid of 40 per cent. of the regulations. In so doing, and on the advice of the Health and Safety Executive, we enhanced safety in the workplace. People's behaviour, not regulations, results in better standards. Regulations based on goal setting as opposed to prescription are more likely to affect people's behaviour in a way that minimises risk and damage, whether through injury at the workplace or through infection.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. If he thinks he knows more than environmental health officers, the Health and Safety Executive and other professionals, I suppose no one in the House will be surprised that he holds that opinion of himself. The Government have received that advice and the hon. Gentleman would do well to take account of it.