I join in congratulating Dr. Iddon on securing this debate. The great value of such a debate is that it sheds light on an area of policy and practice that all too often gets ignored at a national level. It forces all of us to focus for a while on something that is clearly not in a fit condition and that needs a thorough reassessment by Government. It is important that the hon. Gentleman secured this debate and I congratulate him on it. I also join in the thanks to Duncan Campbell, who has clearly been very busy briefing hon. Members for this debate. He is the vice-president of the Association of Public Analysts and his passion for, and the central importance of, his work is clear.
As the hon. Members for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) pointed out, we are talking about threats to life as a result of a range of constantly present food scares. The main purpose of my contribution is to call for the Government to undertake a thorough reassessment of the current statutory framework and of the way in which the service is provided across the country, so that we ensure that it is fit for purpose and that it meets the risks and threats on which other hon. Members have commented. As part of that reassessment, it would be worth while for the Minister to agree to meet representatives of the APA, perhaps with an all-party delegation, to continue the discussion that has been initiated in this valuable debate. I would be extremely grateful if the Minister responded to that request.
I should like briefly to touch on the existing legal framework. The FSA, which was established under the Food Standards Act 1999, has a legal responsibility to carry out its functions
"to protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food (including risks caused by the way in which it is produced or supplied) and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food".
That is the FSA's legal function and duty. However, as other hon. Members have said, the responsibility for carrying out those functions is delegated to local authorities. The FSA therefore has the legal duty and responsibility, but not the means by which to ensure that it meets it.
Responsibility is delegated to local authorities in two ways. When there is a two-tier structure, district councils are responsible through their environmental health departments for food safety. I am familiar with that policy because in a former life, I was a solicitor for a local authority and I prosecuted food hygiene cases—there were some wonderful cases—including one in which an Indian restaurant was charged with using a cricket bat to stir the curry. Anyone involved in the service will know of horrific examples of breaches of the most basic food hygiene standards, and I pay tribute to the work of those professionals. From my experience—I worked for Norwich city council—I can say that they are a highly dedicated group who provided an independent service for the safety of the public in the city. As I understand it from Duncan Campbell, samples that are acquired through district councils' work are sent to the Health Protection Agency laboratories at no cost to the district council, so there is no constraint on ensuring that sufficient sampling is undertaken to protect the public.
Separate from the work of environmental health departments is the work undertaken by county councils in two-tier structures or by unitary authorities, which involves food standards, labelling, contamination and so forth. Where such bodies require sampling to be done, they have to pay the public analysts to do it, and therein lies the problem. With local authorities under increasing financial constraints, the temptation is to reduce the amount of sampling, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East graphically demonstrated. The horror is that many local authorities undertake literally no sampling, with public safety and valuable sampling work subject to a postcode lottery and dependent on whether local authorities have the necessary financial capacity or political interest.
Superficially, this is an easy area in which to make cuts if a local authority is under pressure. The crisis comes when there is a massive challenge to food hygiene and food safety, but then it is too late. The headlines in the national press will ask "Where are the analysts?", and the answer will be that they have all gone because of financial cutbacks. This debate is therefore important because it gives us the chance to highlight a decline that has been under way for a considerable time and which must surely now be addressed.
Public analysts undertake vital work, and we have heard about the scare about melamine in milk from China, but when we talk to someone such as Duncan Campbell, we hear about the other, more proactive work that analysts undertake. Diet is a big issue, and the FSA is doing important work on reducing the salt content of food. It is also looking at other ingredients in food to ensure that our diet improves, particularly to address the growing crisis of obesity that exists in the whole of the western world.
Duncan Campbell talked to me about the work that he and his colleagues were doing with bakers in their area—in Barnsley, I think—to reduce the salt content of bread. That is good, proactive, local work, which is making a real difference to the diets of people who are often in quite impoverished communities. However, if the analysts are not there, the work is not done, and the effects will be seen in public health.
Duncan Campbell also talked about looking at food colourings in Indian takeaways. He said that the colouring added to chicken tikka takeaways can have a massive effect on hyperactivity in children. Again, that is an important public health issue, and he and his colleagues are working on it.
As other contributors to the debate have said, the decline in the service has been under way for a considerable time. There have been problems with recruitment, and there was the threat to the laboratory in Aberdeen. The number of public analysts is down to 38 across the country, and their age profile is also an issue. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East talked about a point of crisis, with sampling activity down by 16 per cent. across the country and several local authorities undertaking no sampling work at all.
What do we do about this? I have no ready prescriptions to offer. Like other speakers, I am conscious of the fact that the food industry's value in the UK is enormous— £150 billion—and that a remarkably small amount is spent on food safety and independent analysis. One option that has been suggested is a 1 per cent. levy on food advertising. Another is to ensure that public funds are made available from taxation for this vital work. Whatever conclusion is reached, we can all agree that this work must be protected.
I conclude, therefore, by repeating my plea for a thorough audit of what is happening around the country, where, as we have discovered today, enormous and unjustified variations in practice exist. Once that audit has been completed, we need a thorough reassessment of the statutory framework, and of this arbitrary divide between district and county councils and between the work done by public laboratories at no cost to local authorities and that which incurs a charge and therefore places a constraint on financially hard-pressed local authorities. That arbitrary divide is open to question and must form part of a thorough reassessment to protect both the food analysts service and the public with regard to the food that they eat.