§ Order for Second Reading read.9.35 am
§ Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Although short, the Bill is extremely important. It has only one key amending provision, clause 1(b), and I shall listen carefully to what the Minister says about reducing the Bill to a single amendment.
The purpose of the Bill is to amend and strengthen the endorsement of the food regulations and their parent legislation, the Food and Drugs Act 1955. Judging by the response that I have received, it is a popular measure. It has the support of the major associations, the metropolitian authorities, the district councils and county councils and the sea and airport authorities. Probably most important, it has the support of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, the trading standards officers, the meat inspectors and the British Veterinary Association. I mention all those important organisations because we are mainly dependent upon them to enforce the food regulations and the food and drugs law that goes with them. The Bill is also supported in principle by all the meat trade associations.
The Bill has three objectives. First, it makes meat racketeering a serious crime. It would make any serious offence under the 1955 Act indictable. It permits serious cases to be taken on indictment into the higher Crown courts, and it thus removes the limits on fines that previously could be imposed on summary conviction in the lower magistrates court. In the higher court, conviction could also carry with it imprisonment for a maximum of two years. Like the Criminal Justice Bill, my Bill raises maximum fines from £100 to £1, 000 on summary conviction in the magistrates court.
The third objective of the Bill relates to time limits for prosecutions. As I understand it, if the charges are taken on indictment in the Crown court, any time limit is removed, thereby eliminating one of the most troublesome impediments suffered by meat inspectors and environmental health officers.
What then lies behind the Bill? Will it stamp out meat racketeering? It is probably best described as the first attempt to bring the food and drugs law and its enforcement into line with modern food technology. Until now, the modest fines imposed by magistrates have been like sticking penny stamps on thousand pound contracts. 1108 The penalties in the past have been out of proportion. I gather that in the meat trade the illicit profits to be gained from selling nondescript unfit meat as manufacturing beef are large. For instance, nondescript knacker meat sells for about £350 a tonne. Horsemeat that is fit for human consumption sells at about £700 a tonne, while manufacturing beef sells for about £1, 400 a tonne. Prime beef sells for much more, of course.
In the forefront of the local authority battle to prevent unfit meat and other poisonous stuff being fed into the food processing industry have been the nation's environmental health officers. I pay tribute to one in particular—Mr. Bruce Cova of Hammersmith and Fulham. He has led a most successful campaign to clean up the submerged tenth of the meat trade. The legitimate meat trade and the consumers owe both him and his colleagues a sizeable debt.
That brings me to the present food campaign being led by the Consumers Association— perhaps better known as Which? magazine. Two of its most assiduous characters—Penny Duckham and David Tench—are professionals to whom all of us, as consumers, should be eternally grateful for their vigilance in matters such as these.
All the consumer food protection work that has already been done confirms the necessity to strengthen the existing regulations and improve their enforcement at source. In other words, it is no use depending entirely on food analysts to detect unfit meat, when the bad stuff has already been processed into protein power, ground animal protein, meat paste in cans or jars, or minced meat in any of the hundred ways by which it is sold across the counter or in restaurants.
I am told by the experts that once knacker meat—whether it is dog, cat, camel, donkey or kangaroo—has been processed, ground up and flavourised, it is difficult to detect. The consumer can be protected only by meat inspectors, veterinary inspectors and health officers preventing knacker meat and meat unfit for human consumption from being sold as good quality beef. Meat inspectors can prevent fraud right at the beginning.
I give a quotation which I consider is important as evidence for the necessity of the Bill. A small but important manufacturer said to me:We act in good faith. We buy beef protein and semi-processed beef in frozen packs. Our business depends upon our retention of a good reputation but quite honestly, what is called manufacturing beef is always a gamble.That is an outstanding revelation which should shake all of us out of the complacency which seems to be attached to the meat trade. That is why the meat regulations must be updated and the law strengthened.
That marvellous campaigning newspaper, the Daily Mirror, and its leading reporter, Douglas Bence, have already proved over the past 12 months the necessity for the Government to back and enforce the code of practice now voluntarily introduced by the bacon and meat manufacturers. In my opinion, it must go a great deal further and involve much more stringent labelling under the Trade Descriptions Act. At present, the consumer must take the food manufacturer on trust. Modern food technology has overtaken the law and, to some extent, has made meaningless even recent legislation.
We now live in a fast food environment. Convenience foods almost encourage the most dubious manufacturing 1109 processes. Big money is to be made using cheap materials. I was revolted to discover that about 2 per cent. of the beef trade was probably not even horsemeat. It could have been unfit knacker meat or, at best, kangaroo.
Of course, I am not talking about retail butchers. Even with the most ingenious lighting effects, it would be difficult to hang up kangaroo meat and sell it off as prime beef. The vast majority of butchers are very fine people. The stuff to which I refer either comes from abroad or arrives at the food manufacturer in a frozen lump packed in a good looking box. That is why it is necessary to get the culprits into the higher court on indictable charges. Only then can the prosecution present a case equal to the seriousness of the offence.
At the moment, charges under the Trade Descriptions Act can be indictable. The higher courts could be asked to deal with a case, for example, involving the canning of horsemeat described on the label as beef. The penalty could be severe although the product that is sold is perfectly good to eat. On the other hand, if the product inside the can was unfit—perhaps cancerous beef, rotten and unsterilised—it would have to be dealt with under the Food and Drugs Act and go before a magistrates court. The culprit might receive not a tenth of the penalty that he might have received for using a fraudulent label. That is an unsupportable contradiction that could be put right by the Bill. Such a comparison is bizarre and must be put right as soon as possible.
Finally, I thank all those hon. Members who have sent me examples of dishonest and dangerous practices in parts of the meat trade and meat processing. They enforce the campaign started by the Consumers Association to lift food standards in a rapidly declining fast food environment. I hope that the Minister will tell us about the new meat regulations and what she proposes to do about the need to stain all unfit and knacker meat to prevent it from being fed into the legitimate trade for human consumption.
Of course, it will cause some difficulty for the pet food industry—not that dogs would object to green meat because they are practically colour blind, but dog owners may be put off. Let us use some of the modern technology about which we hear so much to get rid of staining once it is used.
For all those reasons, I hope that the Government will support the Bill and allow it to go into Standing Committee. I am sure that hon. Members will want it to go through and allow these amendments to strengthen the Food and Drugs Act.
§ Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) on presenting the Bill. He has done a first-class job.
I declare an interest on at least five counts. First, I am a farmer. Secondly, I am a member—one of the founder members—of North Devon Meat, a huge farmers co-operative, one of the largest, and certainly the most efficient meat plants in the country. Thirdly, I represent a constituency which probably produces as much meat as any other constituency. We have enormous flocks of sheep, large herds of cattle, and so on.
1110 Fourthly, I have a daughter who works for a large food company as a trainee quality controller. Therefore, I do know a little about what goes on. Lastly, before I was elected to the House, I used to be a buyer of meat for a slaughterhouse. I had some very interesting times and opportunities. There are real dangers of a buyer being tempted.
In principle, I support much stronger measures than we have now to deal with the problem. Let us not beat about the bush. There is a problem here and it must be dealt with. If my memory is correct—as I get older it seems to get weaker—I raised this subject in the House some years ago. Therefore, I welcome the initiative of the hon. Member for Tottenham in presenting the Bill.
I believe in much stiffer penalties than are now imposed. After all, the stakes are very high. I had hoped that that would receive a laugh, but the House is very dull today. The returns are very high. Demand is great. Therefore, there is a serious temptation and much stiffer penalties should be introduced for infringing the law.
I believe also in staining unfit meat. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will listen very carefully to this. Perhaps that is the best way of dealing with the problem. The stain impregnates the meat, and there is no argument.
In days gone by when there were great surpluses of potatoes, for which farmers received a subsidy, a way had to be found to prevent those potatoes from being used for human consumption. They were stained with a strong purple dye which impregnated the potatoes so that it was difficult for them to be used for human consumption. The animals to which those potatoes were fed seemed not to mind. It is a useful method of dealing with a problem.
Meat that is unfit for human consumption should be stained. It should be impregnated with a dye that would show up whether the meat was in minced form, on the butcher's slab or wherever it was. That would be a real step forward. That provision is not included in the Bill, but the penalties are there, so I hope that it will be introduced at a later stage. I look forward with interest to hearing the Minister's views on this issue. With impregnated staining there would be no argument.
The public have a right to be protected and to know what they are eating. They should know what is in a hamburger. There is considerable disquiet at some of the practices reported in the press, which is unfair to honest traders who are fair and correct in their dealings. My one criticism of the hon. Gentleman in introducing the Bill is that he did not highlight the fact that 99 per cent. of all meat buyers and slaughterers, and of all butchers and retailers, are absolutely straight and honest people. It is a small minority who have stained and spoilt the image of this great and important industry supplying meat and food to the nation.
The temptations are very great. Steaks sell at a premium. Interestingly enough, despite the world recession and all the problems that the country faces, the demand for steaks is enormous and one cannot produce enough steaks per carcase. Anyone who knows a little about butchering, slaughtering or meat plants knows that there is a need for many more steaks per side of beef, because the demand is so great and housewives have tended to turn away from the cheaper cuts such as shin or stewing steak. The great demand for steaks gives rise to the temptation to produce them from knackered or otherwise unfit meat. There is a saying that animal 1111 breeders should produce sheep and cattle with four hind legs because the demand is always for the better cuts, so the temptations are very great.
The same applies to hamburgers. It is a growing trade. When I was a young man, many years ago, we had never heard of hamburgers. We had mince rissoles. I wonder how many hon. Members know about rissoles now. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, remember them well. That shows our age. Rissoles were very nice, but now it is hamburgers. But what is in them? That is the important point. We have a duty to make them of good, wholesome, fresh meat. As the hon. Member for Tottenham said, it is easy to camouflage meat used in mince and hamburgers.
I am not against a mixture in products of this kind. Heaven knows what is in a hog's pudding. Indeed, I wonder how many hon. Members even know what a hog's pudding is. I see that a Minister from north of the border is present. Does he know what really goes into a haggis?
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Allan Stewart)
I do not want to know.
§ Mr. Mills
My hon. Friend is right. We do not want to know. On the whole, good wholesome meat goes into these products, but we must not be squeamish. Modern sausage production involves grinding up a good proportion of the bone. All kinds of things go into such mixtures. I have nothing against that, but unfit or knackered meat should not be used. We must watch this carefully, as the temptations are great. The fines must be much heavier than they are now, and staining is an important means of detection.
Slaughterhouse companies are anxious about their image as a result of what is happening. As I have said, 99 per cent. of these people are straight. They run hygienic, first-class meat plants and certainly do not dabble in the illegal trade. The North Devon Meat plant, of which I am proud, is extremely strict. It is amazing how strict it is. No horse meat or condemned meat from that or any other slaughterhouse of repute would be allowed to be used for human consumption.
Indeed, at North Devon Meat an enormous plant, which cost millions of pounds, is used to convert all the rubbish—the condemned meat, blood, bones and the rest—into a great grinding mass which is then dried and used for fertiliser or animal feed mixtures. It is absolutely sterile, clean and fit. That is good, and I believe that 99 per cent. of meat plants carry out stringent controls in such matters. Their reputation is high and they have too much at stake to let such matters slip.
Many of them, especially North Devon Meat, supply big retailers of national repute who demand extremely high standards. If one has ever watched the production of packaged meat for companies such as Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury, one will know how tough is the quality control. Some companies even send inspectors to check the process from beginning to end. There is therefore no chance of the properly run big or even the smaller plants ever allowing such illegal practices to take place. We should be careful therefore in these matters, lest we damage our excellent industry. However, having said that, I regret that a few suppliers get away with such practices.
I believe that illegal slaughtering goes on, and I should be interested to hear from the Minister whether there is very much of it. It takes place in outhouses and sheds, but I doubt whether it is widespread, although the temptation certainly exists.
1112 I shall relate a true story. One Thursday night, at about 1 am or 2 am, in a lonely part of my constituency I was stopped by the police. When I asked why I had been stopped, I was told that they were on the lookout for sheep rustlers. What happens is that a farmer drives around the area with his dog in the back of his van. The dog is put into a field and sheep are rounded up. Three or four sheep are whipped into the back of the van and subsequently illegally slaughtered, without any control or checks, and irrespective of whether the sheep are diseased. There must be ruthless checks and large fines imposed on those who are tempted to slaughter illegally.
I have every faith in the integrity of butchers. I am sure that 99 per cent. of them are completely honest in all that they do. However, I read in the newspapers this week of a knackers yard that had sold some unfit meat to a butcher. I understand that the seller thought that the meat would not go into a shop, but would be used for some other purpose. Only a minute number of those engaged in the retail butchery trade would ever do such a thing. We must be careful not to give the impression that many butchers are carrying out illegal practices or using meat that is condemned. I believe that the great majority are honest in their trading. However, it is serious when illegal practices take place.
I understand that some large multiple retail stores and some butchers have been caught over kangaroo meat. They did not know that the block of frozen meat that came on to the premises was kangaroo meat. These are serious matters, and we must listen carefully to what retail butchers have to say.
Recently I received a letter from the National Federation of Meat Traders. The federation observes that it is important to realise that there are only a few cowboys in the trade and that on the whole the trade is first class. We must agree with that. The letter continues:We do not think that Norman Atkinson's Bill is anything like finely enough tuned to deal merely with the unfit meat brigade. Its effect would be to provide a framework within which all offences under the Food and Drugs Act 1955 or regulations made thereunder could become eligible for treatment in the Crown courts. In our trade this would include hygiene, labelling, meat content and many other areas of activity which do not in any way warrant the big stick approach and where magistrates courts are well able to cope with the problems that do arise.It will be interesting to hear from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary or the hon. Member for Tottenham—
§ Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West)
Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that there is no proposal in my hon. Friend's Bill that such proceedings have to be on indictment? It merely provides that they can be on indictment if that is appropriate.
§ Mr. Mills
That is what I wanted to hear. It is important that that is made clear to the National Federation of Meat Traders. That is one of the issues that it has raised in the letter to which I have referred.
The letter continues:the Federation would be only too willing to consider whether it could lend its support but such legislation will have to be aimed at a much narrower field than the present Bill.That is something that can be argued out in Committee.
Perhaps I should tell the House that I had the privilege of speaking at the federation's annual conference a year or so ago and that I agree with many of the observations that it sets out in the letter that I received. The letter adds: 1113You may recall that at our conference last year we mentioned our wish to obtain mandating licensing for butchers. This would have been additional defence against illegal trades if it had been in force.That is another issue that should be considered in Committee.
Knackers yards are run by responsible people and they provide an enormous service. I do not know whether the House realises what an important role knackers yards play in the farming world. Life would be extremely difficult without them. In days gone by an animal that had died or was sick was often sent to the hunt for the hounds to eat. Hunting is not as extensive at it used to be and with far more cattle in our fields there are problems in disposing of animals that are sick and will die and those that have dropped down and died on the farm.
As a farmer, I pay a tribute to those who run the knackers yards. They provide a wonderful service. They come very quickly after a telephone call has been made and remove the carcase. The operation is carried out decently and properly. It is a difficult and unpleasant job. I do not think that any hon. Members would like the job of working in a knackers yard. I repeat that it is an essential and difficult job.
There are temptations for those in knackers yards. One may have a beautiful Friesian cow weighing 11 to 12 cwt. that is, as we say in farming, fully fleshed. If it were slaughtered it would provide excellent meat. Steak from cow beef has excellent flavour. Such an animal may drop down suddenly with milk fever or brain fever. Sometimes that happens in two or three minutes. When it is all over that animal will, to all intents and purposes, look fine. It will certainly have flesh. The House will understand the temptations when it is taken to the knackers yard.
In the example that I have given the cow has not died from an unpleasant illness. It has not suffered a cancerous condition. It has not had mastitis. I shall not horrify the House by describing some of the appalling diseases from which animals suffer. The cow that I have described has died suddenly from a fever. In those circumstances there is nothing wrong with the carcase. Some of those who run knackers yards must fall for the obvious temptation. However, on the whole they are straightforward and honest people who do an excellent job.
Notwithstanding all that I have said about meat plants, butchers and knackers yards, we must stamp on illegal practices. I support the view that they must be dealt with firmly. The dangers are too great to allow that sort of trade to continue. If illegal practices are as widespread as some suggest, it is amazing that there have not been more problems with human health.
I do not know whether any of my hon. Friends or Labour Members have eaten kangaroo meat while in Australia. It tastes like any game meat. Kangaroo steak is excellent. It is like a high venison; very pleasant indeed.
According to a friend of mine, a Member of Parliament for New South Wales, the Australians are concerned about the allegations that kangaroo meat came into this country from Australia. It has damaged their excellent trade in clean beef. They do not want to see it continuing. Only a few people jumped on this bandwagon and exported blocks of processed kangaroo meat. I am certain that the Australian Government and Australian farmers want to protect their image. They have a high reputation for 1114 excellent beef and they want to keep it. They jumped on the people concerned, who were dealt with severely. As I understand it, some of the small plants in this business were closed.
It is important to remember that Germany imports a great deal of kangaroo meat, properly labelled, so that everybody knows exactly what it is. Do not let us run away with the idea that kangaroo meat is beastly; it is not. What is wrong is passing it off, at increased profits, as clean beef.
I hope that the House will consider the Bill carefully, and that in Committee the points that I and others have raised will be dealt with to the satisfaction of the butchers and the retail trade. Although, as I expected, the press are not listening, I hope that the message will go out from the House that only a few people carry out this illegal practice. The butchers and the meat plants do a very good job. Anyone found carrying on this illegal practice should be stamped on. I hope to hear from the Minister that unfit meal will be stained.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
I seem always to be following the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills). The last time was in the debates on the Zoo Licensing (No. 2) Bill. One of the issues in those debates was that some cowboy elements were trading in zoo animals as meat. Like the hon. Member, I must declare an interest, although not a financial one, as a member of the council of the Consumers Association. I join him in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) on his good fortune in the ballot and pay tribute to him for introducing his Bill so succinctly. I should also pay another tribute to him on behalf of the Consumers Association. My hon. Friend originally opted for another Bill and was gazumped because a similar one had already been introduced. We are grateful that he has come back with a second Bill that is equally needed.
I think hon. Members will agree with the hon. Member for Devon, West that we are talking about a minority of cowboys in the butchering trade, the farming fraternity, the importers, the cold store people, the knackers yard operators and so on. As he realises, that is always the case when preventive legislation of this kind comes before the House. It is precisely because an unscrupulous minority of cowboys become a posse of rustlers and outlaws that we need the legislation. There have been enough examples in recent weeks to show anyone who doubted it that there is a case for bringing this legislation in line with the law in other areas, and for doing so quickly.
This may not be the week to say that we live in the age of the train, but we certainly live in the age of the junk burger. The junk burger and the fast food industry have become so much a part of our retailing of meat products—if it is not stretching the English language too far to call them meat products—that there will be or could be great rewards for the unscrupulous. There is evidence from recent prosecutions not only of the extent of this unscrupulous racketeering, but also of the sheer paucity of the present penalties. That essentially is the matter before the House today.
The Bill is not a wholesale condemnation of the meat industry; far from it. I join the hon. Member for Devon, West in paying tribute to the large majority of people in that industry, which is crucial to our national well-being. However, I have to add that the main purposes of the Bill 1115 are in my view necessary. That is why we want to hear the Government's view on the Bill this morning—whether or not they will let it through and where they see the precise emphases to lie.
The Bill has three purposes which are to some degree overlapping or alternative. There is the need in England and Wales to increase the fine for summary offences under the Food and Drugs Act 1955 from £100 to a maximum of £1, 000. I will come to why that is necessary in a moment.
Secondly—this meets a point raised by the hon. Member for Devon, West—the Bill will make serious offences under the 1955 Act indictable so that they can be heard in Crown courts rather than in magistrates courts, with the commensurate increased penalties. I say "can be heard in Crown courts"; not necessarily "must be heard in Crown courts". If the offence can be made indictable the full rigour of the law can then be applied in the worst cases, and applied quickly.
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)
Does the hon. Member agree with me that, in the light of the apprehension which has been expressed about the use of Crown courts, those responsible for prosecuting hygiene offences might bear in mind the fact that publicity for such a prosecution would be more likely in a magistrates court? Therefore, the magistrates court might be preferred to the Crown court with its heavier penalties. This might reassure those who think that Crown courts will normally be used.
§ Mr. Whitehead
I accept that to some extent, but we are dealing here with offences for which the penalties are inadequate. Odious publicity is not in itself always a sufficient deterrent. A parallel example is our penalties for the demolition of listed buildings. When a speculator demolishes a listed building and is brought to court for it, he attracts great adverse publicity. However, because of the low level of the penalties it is still worthwhile for people to do it. We have to look beyond the adverse publicity to the deterrent effect of possible penalties.
§ Mr. Peter Mills
I promise not to intervene again. Does the hon. Member not agree that the Bill ought to extend to Scotland as well?
§ Mr. Whitehead
I promise not to give way again. We all tremble at extending our influence north of the border. I have a great regard for Scotland's law, its education system and so on. I leave it to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) to answer that question. The Bill deals with England and Wales. I hope that the Scots and the Scottish butchers, for whom I have a high regard, will take note of what is said in the House today and that the Bill will be extended if the House judges it wise.
The third purpose of the Bill is to increase from six to 12 months the time limit for bringing a prosecution in the magistrates courts. While penalties remain at their present level, we shall virtually encourage those who feel that they can make a killing, in both senses of the word, and get away with it often enough to make it worthwhile. The hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens) will probably deal in detail with the Anthony Animal Products case in his constituency, which was brought to public notice by the vigilance of Hammersmith and Fulham borough council's environmental health officers. I pay tribute to them. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt alarm the House with the details, but I shall consider the penalties involved.
1116 Anthony Animal Products was charged and brought to court. Those involved were prosecuted for 183 separate offences under the Food and Drugs Act, because it was only in that way that a sufficient sequence of £100 fines could be levied to act as a deterrent. They were fined a total of £18, 300. Hon. Members should consider the cost of bringing such a prosecution which, given the preparation of 183 separate offences, was £52, 000. Therefore, it cost the public more to bring Anthony Animal Products to book than was recovered in fines. That is ludicrous.
Other examples have been cited, some of which were recently highlighted in the Daily Star. It mentioned some of the racketeers who were brought to book in 1981 and stated:In Croydon, health officers spotted 3, 000 lb of suspicious, dark-looking meat on a routine check at a depot. When defrosted, the meat was clearly diseased—with straw, hairs, and cow dung clinging to it.When analysed, the beef showed evidence of chronic peritonitis and one hind-quarter piece was decomposing In addition, a piece of loin in that nasty pack was fevered meat. The hon. Member for Devon, West, who is a farmer, and every other hon. Member will accept that that is disgusting and a fraud on the public. Such activities should be penalised. Other examples of such activities are given in Swansea and Bristol. In addition, there has beer a recent case in the East Midlands, not far from my home.
People have been known to mislead the operators of knacker yards. I live in a farming village and I know the value of such yards and the unpleasant work involved. Recently, someone turned up at a knackers yard and said that he was buying meat for his greyhounds. He had a van outside and was known to run many greyhounds. The meat was taken away, but—surprise, surprise—it went not to the greyhounds, but to the public. That man was caught and prosecuted. The knackers yard man may be tempted if he has a prime carcase on his hands but he may also be misled about the destination of meat that he supplies and believes it is being sold for game animals or pets.
Clause 2 seeks to extend the time limits for prosecutions under the Food and Drugs Act 1955. The wording is fairly deliberately borrowed from section 19 of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 in order to bring parallel provisions into both areas of consumer legislation. The Food and Drugs Act provides only for summary offences and, as a result, the six-month time limit for summary proceedings contained in the Magistrates Court Act 1980 applies. One of the main objects of clause 2 is to extend the time limit for summary proceedings from six to 12 months. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's remarks. If clause 1 is accepted, she may feel that clause 2 is unnecessary. However, it was essential to draw the attention of the House to the need to extend the time limit for prosecutions.
§ Mr. Archer
Before my hon. Friend concedes too much, will he not agree that it would be unfortunate—where summary proceedings were appropriate—that the authority should be compelled to bring proceedings in the Crown court simply because of the time limit?
§ Mr. Whitehead
I do indeed agree. My right hon. and learned Friend has helped me to draw my remarks to a conclusion. We have framed the provisions to allow the maximum flexibility to this corrective legislation. I hope that the Minister will assure us not only that the 1117 Government support the Bill—which has wide support on both sides of the House—but that they will do so in a way that will enable us to bring all the legislation that protects the consumer in this area into line with existing protection in other areas and that they will do so this Session.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)
I do not wish to interrupt hon. Members or to pre-empt any contributions that hon. Members wish to make, but at this stage it may be convenient if I give the Government's view. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) sought an assurance, and I thought that this might be an appropriate time to make some comments. If hon. Members direct any specific points to the Government, perhaps I may be permitted—with the leave of the House—to respond again.
I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the Government are able to support this Bill. We recognise the concerns which have led to the Bill and which have shown clearly that for some offences under the Food and Drugs Act 1955 the penalties, mode of trial and time limits need altering. The Bill would provide higher penalties for offenders and the possibility of trial by jury, and enable enforcement authorities to prepare prosecutions better in serious cases.
The Government had already recognised that fines under the Food and Drugs Act had become seriously outdated because of inflation. Indeed, the maximum fine of £100 provided by section 106 has not been raised since the Act came into force. In recent years, these fines have been represented to the Government as being inadequate and my right hon. Friend has on several occasions given assurances that the earliest legislative opportunity would be taken to bring them up to date. The Criminal Justice Bill, which received its Second Reading last week, would indeed raise the £100 maximum penalty to £1, 000 and update a number of other fines for offences under the Act. Section 106 of the Food and Drugs Act was made a special case under the Bill, so that that tenfold increase could be achieved, but the scope of the Criminal Justice Bill does not extend to methods of trial, so it would not have been possible to include a provision to make offences triable either way, as this Bill will do. The Bill will make trial by jury a possibility and render offenders liable to unlimited fines, imprisonment for up to two years, or both, and provide real discouragement to large-scale illegal operations in unfit meat.
One must not lose sight of the fact, however—my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) briefly raised this point—that the Food and Drugs Act 1955 is not simply concerned with unfit meat control. It contains the principal statutory provisions governing the circumstances in which food may be sold for human consumption.
Until fairly recently the protection of the health of consumers had been separate from measures aimed at ensuring satisfactory food quality. The former had its origins in the Public Health Acts of the last century, and developed with the understanding of the dangers of dirt and disease as part of the general move towards cleaner and more hygienic premises. The quality aspects of food legislation first appeared in 1875 in the Sale of Food and Drugs Act, which required that food must be of the nature, 1118 substance and quality demanded by the purchaser. In 1938, a new Act brought together for the first time all aspects of legislation governing food—both hygiene and quality—and introduced provisions to control the labelling and advertising of food. The Food and Drugs Act 1955 now incorporates these provisions and empowers Ministers to make regulations to control the hygienic preparation of food and the composition, labelling and advertising of food. The Act does not now cover drugs; that is left to the Medicines Act 1968.
The Bill will, of course, affect not only the offence of selling unfit meat, but all the main offences created by the Act. On the health side, these include selling for human consumption any food to which substances have been added or abstracted or which has been so processed as to render it injurious to health, and selling any food intended but unfit for human consumption. On the quality side, the Act makes offences of selling, to the prejudice of the purchaser, food which is not of the nature, substance or quality demanded. This is reinforced by the provision making it an offence to use a description which falsely describes a food or which is calculated to mislead as to its nature, substance or quality. There is a special provision prohibiting the sale for human consumption of knacker meat and its derivatives.
I should point out to hon. Members—this is always an important issue in legislation—that making offences triable either way means an increase in the costs of prosecution and an increase in central Government expenditure. Trial by jury is, of course, more expensive than trial in a magistrates court. I do not envisage that many cases would go to trial by jury. The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) made that point. However, it is a possibility. I believe that only a small proportion would be tried in this way. Nevertheless, prosecution costs and legal aid costs will increase. The cost of all prosecutions for offences triable either way will fall to be paid from central Government funds.
To enable this to be properly reflected on and considered by the House, the new arrangements will need to be deferred until the beginning of 1983. I assure hon. Members that this is unlikely to represent a significant delay, because the Bill will, of course, take time to pass its various stages, and it then provides for a short period between the time when it becomes law and the time when it comes into operation.
Having said that the Bill will affect other matters, apart from unfit meats, I shall now concentrate on unfit meats. I am, of course, well aware of the concern which has been expressed over the illegal use of unfit meat, which has given rise to this Bill. This issue has been given much attention in the media and in the House, and it is understandable that the general public should be concerned over the serious allegations which have been made. The practices which have come to light in some areas are deplorable. It is important that everyone concerned in this matter—the Government, the local authorities which enforce the law, and the meat trade—should do all that they can to stamp out these practices so that the public's confidence in the products they buy is maintained.
In opening, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) referred to the submerged tenth. We should view this in the proper perspective. I am not aware of any firm evidence to back the proportion that he mentioned. It is clear that some serious abuses of the law have taken 1119 place, but it is difficult to see how they can be proved to be as widespread as has been suggested. The code of practice issued by the Bacon and Meat Manufacturers Association, which the Government welcome, advised manufacturers, for example, to exercise increased vigilance over raw materials. That could play an important part in ensuring that only fit meat is used in their products. The hon. Member for Tottenham was rightly and properly concerned about the detection of unfit meat, horsemeat and kangaroo meat after it has been processed. It is difficult to detect unfit meat when it is thoroughly processed, but it is possible for analysts to detect horsemeat and kangaroo by serum agglutination and by other more complex techniques, such as electrophoresis—or so I am reliably informed.
It is also important that the excellent reputation of the great majority of our meat traders and processors should not be tarnished by the activities of those who try to make illegal profits by evading the legislation. In that respect, I welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West and of the hon. Member for Derby, North. They said that they were talking not about the great majority of the people who trade, but about a few unscrupulous processors. I know the agriculture and food industries are extremely concerned that their reputation for producing good, wholesome products should not be spoilt by the activities of these few unscrupulous traders. It is, of course, by the very nature of the problem, very difficult to assess how widespread malpractices have been. However, without wishing in any way to underestimate the seriousness of the problem—I trust that the hon. Member for Tottenham will accept what I say—it would be wrong to assume that there is any general wish on the part of the meat industry to evade the legislation. Slaughterhouse operators, for example, are, in general, well aware of the advantages of the legislative controls which have been developed over many years in this country for ensuring that meat is hygienically produced and subject to official inspection. It is vital for our valuable export trade that our customers in other countries should have confidence in the quality of our products.
The question of how illegal practices in this area are to be stamped out does not have any simple answer. The Bill should certainly make a contribution by allowing appropriate procedures to be followed when prosecutions need to be taken. However, I am sure that everyone will agree that the objectives must also be to prevent these offences being committed in the first place. This clearly requires a high degree of alertness and vigour on the part of the local authorities which enforce the legislation and strict application of all the detailed legislative controls that are designed to prevent unfit meat being sold for human consumption.
I do not propose to refer today to individual cases. I would, however, say that the action taken by a number of local authorities shows how much can be achieved under the existing legislation. I know that, with the present necessary financial restraints that affect all aspects of public expenditure, local authorities have to apply careful thought to the priorities to be given to their various responsibilities, but measures designed to protect the public, such as controls on unfit meat, have high importance. That is why the Government want to ensure that the controls work and that they are cost-effective.
Much has been said in the House today and on other occasions, and also elsewhere, about the need to tighten 1120 the controls on unfit meat, but we must not lose sight of the fact that we already have a detailed control system. We accept that there is a case for tightening the controls, but it is important not to underestimate the extent of the action that can already be taken to prevent abuse. It may be helpful to illustrate the point if I refer to some of the main legislative controls.
First, the Slaughterhouses Act 1974 requires all private slaughterhouses to be licensed by a local authority, and a licence may be issued only if various hygiene and other requirements are met. The Slaughterhouses (Hygiene) Regulations 1977 lay down detailed requirements on the layout and hygienic practices that must be observed in slaughterhouses. The Meat Inspection Regulations 1963, as amended, provide that no meat may leave a slaughterhouse for sale for human consumption unless it has been inspected by an authorised inspector and passed as fit for human consumption. In England and Wales, all such meat must also be stamped with an official mark. Meat which has been judged to be unfit must be kept separate to avoid contamination.
Then we have the Meat (Sterilisation) Regulations 1969 which, as I shall explain later, are currently being reviewed. The purpose of these regulations is basically to ensure that all unfit meat and knacker meat is disposed of safely for purposes other than human consumption. The regulations require that all unfit meat from slaughterhouses and meat from knackers yards may not, subject to specified exemptions, leave such premises unless it has been sterilised. The exemptions—these are important because there are some major trade interests to which reference has been made, such as pet food manufacturers, who legitimately use unsterilised unfit meat—allow such meat to be consigned to processing establishments or to a variety of other destinations, such as establishments that manufacture pharmaceutical products.
§ Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)
This is an important point. My hon. Friend will be aware that it is not permissible in the Republic of Ireland to sell unsterilised meat, even for pet food. That may be one of the reasons why the trade in illicit meat has grown to such an extent in this country. It has created a glut. Will the Government consider—perhaps not at this stage, but at a future date—moves to bring the standards in this country up to those that obtain in the Republic of Ireland and so ensure that untreated and unclean meat shall not be used, even in the manufacture of pet food?
§ Mrs. Fenner
I shall have some comments to make later that I hope will assist my hon. Friend. I shall expand on the existing legislative controls.
Similar controls apply to imported unfit meat—another important source of raw material for our pet food industry and other legitimate users. The regulations require records to be kept by those who deal in unfit and knacker meat and give authorised officers the power to enter premises to check on compliance with the requirements. I might also mention—this has been the subject of much concern—that the Food and Drugs Act 1955 contains specific provisions on the sale of horsemeat which basically require any person selling horsemeat to make clear to any purchaser by means of a notice that the product is horsemeat.
This summary of the legislation should make it clear that local authorities have a wide range of powers for ensuring the hygienic production of meat and for 1121 preventing the sale of unfit meat for human consumption, but the Government accept that events have proved the difficulty of enforcing some of these requirements. I believe that the controls at slaughterhouses where local authority meat inspectors are present to apply the inspection requirements are generally satisfactory. Surveillance of other parts of the meat trade, such as knackers yards and cold stores, is generally at a lower level. Adequate control on the movement of unfit and knacker meat is difficult once it has entered the distribution chain, especially as the meat often passes through several changes of ownership and travels considerable distances.
§ Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Hemel Hempstead)
I apologise if my hon. Friend has already mentioned this point. Are the Government considering a new regulation that all meat that leaves any kind of slaughtering place must bear a label showing where and when it was killed, what it is supposed to contain, and the name and address of the slaughterer and packer? If every piece of meat, particularly frozen meat, that is boxed carried that information—this is not a difficult requirement—it would be easy to track down the origin of the kind of unfit meat that we are discussing.
§ Mrs. Fenner
My hon. and learned Friend will, I think, be reassured when I reach that point in my explanation.
Because we accept that events have proved the difficulty of enforcing some of these requirements, the Government have been carrying out a detailed examination of the legislation to see whether the controls on the use of unfit meat and knacker meat need to be changed. Following the disclosure of serious cases of alleged abuses last year, comments were invited from a large number of interested organisations on how the existing legislation had been working. At that stage the Government did not issue proposals of their own for dealing with the problem as they needed to obtain the views of all who had knowledge of the working of the present legislation. A large number of comments was received. The comments were varied in nature. Some organisations expressed the view that the existing law was basically satisfactory, provided it was properly enforced, while others argued that amendments were needed to ensure a satisfactory framework of legislative controls.
After detailed consideration of those comments, in October my Department issued a list of points where it considered that amendments would be justified. This was issued to the main organisations concerned for comment, and my officials held discussions with those most concerned in an attempt to reach a consensus on what needed to be done and to discuss the many detailed points which had been raised.
I must emphasise that this legislation is very complex and a large number of different interests are affected by it—not only the enforcement authorities, but the various sectors of the meat industry, consumer interests and those who have a legitimate interest in using unfit meat. We are now considering the many comments received on our ideas for amending the law, and our intention is to prepare formal proposals for amendments as quickly as possible. I cannot give a firm undertaking when this will be, but I assure the House that we are giving this work high priority.
1122 The ideas for amending the law on which we are working are for changes to secondary legislation—mainly the Meat (Sterilisation) Regulations, although we also have in mind limited amendments to the Meat Inspection Regulations. One of the most significant changes that we think would be justified is the introduction of a requirement to stain certain types of unfit and knacker meat. This is a measure which the environmental health officers and other enforcement authorities have been strongly advocating as a means of ensuring immediate identification of unfit meat, and we accept that there is a strong case for this. Our suggestion is that all carcase meat which is not passed as fit for human consumption in a slaughterhouse and all carcase meat from knackers yards should be stained before leaving the premises unless it has been sterilised. This approach would not require unfit offals to be stained.
I know that representations have been made for the staining of all unfit meat—whether carcase meat or offals. No final conclusions have been reached on this matter, but I should explain that the reason for the approach we adopted was that we did not wish to impose new requirements on the trade unless there was a clear need, and the available evidence suggested that the malpractices had essentially concerned the diversion of unfit carcase meat into the market for human consumption. We also took account, in particular, of the valid interest of the pet food industry which uses large quantities of offals in its products and is anxious that a staining requirement should not adversely affect the appearance of those products. We have been conducting trials to identify types of stain which would be suitable for the purpose that we have in mind. I trust that the hon. Member for Tottenham, who particularly raised that point, will be reassured and satisfied about it.
§ Mr. Norman Atkinson
I am grateful for the Minister's remarks. On behalf of the consumer associations, local authorities and the veterinary meat inspectorate, I thank her for the thoroughness with which she and her Ministry have dealt with the inquiries already made and the genuineness with which she has presented the recommendations which will come in the form of the new regulations.
I also thank the Minister for her acceptance of the Bill and for the support that she and the Government intend to give to it. That will be welcomed by consumer associations and their members throughout the country. However, I hope that the hon. Lady will be undeterred by some of the minority reports which want to put her off the idea of staining or treating offal. I am assured that much of that offal finds its way into either beef extracts or powdered protein which, of course, is fed into the meat processing chain which leads to consumption by humans. That is an area about which there is much concern among medical authorities.
§ Mrs. Fenner
I take careful note of what the hon. Gentleman says. I assure him that we have not yet reached conclusions. We are conducting trials to identify the types of stains that will be suitable. I trust that he appreciates that we are still pursuing this matter.
That kind of staining requirement would certainly be a central feature of a revised system of controls, but we consider that it must be backed up by other controls. The incentive to evade the requirements would remain. Indeed, 1123 there could even be a false sense of security if it were considered that any unstained meat was bound to be fit for human consumption. We have therefore also issued ideas for other changes to back up the basic requirements on staining and sterilisation. Perhaps the most important of these is the proposal for all movements of unfit and knacker meat to be subject to prior authorisation by the local authorities concerned, and for movements to be notified subsequently to the local authority. This is important, because one of the main difficulties has been that unfit meat often travels considerable distances, across many local authority boundaries, and it has been understandably difficult for local authorities to keep track of the movements and destinations of it.
The system that we envisage would give local authorities much greater knowledge of the detailed movements of unfit meat and allow systematic controls to be exercised, where appropriate, to check that it was reaching its stated destinations.
My next remarks will reassure my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell) that we also have in mind other amendments designed to ensure a more effective system of control, such as a requirement for boxes of unfit meat to be clearly marked as such, and for more detailed records to he kept. Of course, no system of legislative controls can ever provide an absolute assurance that abuses will not occur, but, we think that the changes that we have in mind, taken together, should do much to prevent malpractices.
§ Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden)
I welcome what my hon. Friend has said. Is she aware that last year in my constituency, which includes parts of Solihull, 12 tonnes of meat travelled rapidly through no fewer than five local authority areas before they were able to get hold of the meat and confiscate it. I am grateful that she has covered those points.
§ Mrs. Fenner
It is also important for companies in the meat trade to exercise continued vigilance over the quality of their meat purchases. That is why I referred to the action taken by the Bacon and Meat Manufacturers Association. I have referred to its code of practice. This initiative illustrates the responsible attitude and concern for the consumer held by our meat industry.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
Before my hon. Friend moves away from the important point about the mobility of these products, the whole House will be delighted to know that the Government intend not only to support the Bill, but perhaps to extend it by moving further amendments in Committee. My hon. Friend has just made a very important commitment. One point for consideration in Committee—I accept that my hon. Friend may be unable to reply now—is whether the Government accept that one of the greatest dangers regarding mobility comes from the fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland are to a degree excluded from the Bill. I understand that meat is not stamped in Scotland. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to say, by the time the Bill goes to Committee, that the Government will at least consider the possibility of extending that requirement. Otherwise, there are two back doors into England which could undermine the Bill's whole objective.
§ Mrs. Fenner
I can reassure my hon. Friend about Northern Ireland. I shall ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to answer that point.
1124 The Department of Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland is content to follow any amendments made to the Food and Drugs Act 1955 on penalties, method of trial or time limits for prosecutions with similar changes to the Northern Ireland legislation. That could be done in the forthcoming criminal justice legislation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) will be reassured on that matter.
§ Mrs. Fenner
I shall ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to enlarge on that aspect later.
The measures to which I have referred will be necessary, whatever changes are made to the law, but the Government will do all that they can to ensure that there are adequate measures to deal with this difficult and important matter.
This is a very short Bill, but in such a measure dealing, as it does, with the basic framework of the law, every word counts. There are a number of improvements to the drafting of the Bill which the Government would like to see made before it progresses further than the Committee stage. They would be amendments to ensure that the Bill achieves its true purpose. If I take the Bill clause by clause I may be able to illustrate the type of amendments needed.
Clause I would repeal and replace section 106 of the Food and Drugs Act 1955, which prescribes the penalties for the main offences under the Act. There are special penalties prescribed elsewhere, and I shall come to them in a moment. The new section would deal with both penalties and mode of trial. The new penalties and mode of trial to be imposed are clear. Offences will be triable either way. A guilty person will be liable to a maximum fine of £1, 000 on summary conviction and on indictment to an unlimited fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or both. The fine of £1, 000 for a summary offence is at present, the Government believe, the right maximum for these offences. However, the Bill does not provide for it to be updated by statutory instrument as are other such fines. In fact, the penalty would suffer from the same problem as the present maximum penalty of £100—it could not easily be revised. To enable the fine to be revised, if necessary, I am advised that it needs to be the prescribed sum within the meaning of section 32(9) of the Magistrates Courts Act 1980.
The Bill sensibly intends to leave severely alone the offences for which special penalties are prescribed in the Act. They are covered in 12 separate sections of the Act and it would have been a considerable undertaking to deal with them all in such a Bill. The offences range from failure to display a name and address on an ice cream van, through selling specified articles near a market in market hours without a licence, to obstruction and failure to give assistance or information. Those offences are at present, with one exception, triable only summarily, and the maximum fines for them will be updated by the Criminal Justice Bill. We should like the Bill before us to be amended to make it clear that those offences remain, with the one exception I have mentioned, triable only summarily.
Clause 2 deals with time limits for prosecutions. The intention of the Bill is clearly to align the Food and Drugs Act 1955 with the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. That is 1125 a logical intention, because many offences under the two Acts are similar in nature. At present the time limit for commencement of prosecutions under the Food and Drugs Act 1955 is six months from the commission of an offence, with special, shorter time limits where a sample has been procured under the Act. I accept that there are instances where longer time limits are needed. In fact, if the Bill confined itself to making offences triable either way, it would remove any time limit for prosecutions of those offences, apart, of course, from prosecutions depending on formal samples.
The provisions on time limits for the offences newly made triable either way will need careful scrutiny. In spite of the general absence of time limits for the prosecution of such offences, it may be appropriate to impose one in this case. Where a prosecution depends on samples, the Bill provides that the special time limits in the Act should be retained, and we concur with that. They should be the same time limits, irrespective of the way an offence is tried.
Clause 3 begins with a collective citation clause. I must take issue with the draftsman, as he has omitted to mention the Food and Drugs (Amendment) Act 1981—a measure designed, as hon. Members will recall, to free the women's institutes and similar organisations from the need to register with the local authority the premises where they prepare their food. That Act should be mentioned in any collective citation.
As the House will appreciate from what I have said, the Bill is admirable in intent and when it has been improved, as I have suggested, it should achieve that intent. In the hope that that will happen, the Government support the Bill's being given a Second Reading. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will reply later to hon. Members who have expressed concern about whether the Bill extends to Scotland. I shall be happy to reply later, with the consent of the House, to other points made in the debate.
§ 11.6 am
§ Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West)
We are grateful to the Government, and I have no doubt that in due course we shall be grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, but we agreed that it would be more convenient if I spoke at this point.
The House will certainly be grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary. She set our minds at rest and has probably enabled us to make our contributions briefer than they would otherwise have been. She mentioned a number of drafting and technical points, but I should be surprised if my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) ever thought that he had achieved the ultimate perfection in draftsmanship. The House is always grateful to the parliamentary draftsman for putting us right on these matters and we shall have time to consider them at greater leisure in Committee.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham, both on his good fortune in securing a place in the ballot and on his discernment in using it to present this Bill. We all know that those who win a place in the ballot have to walk a tightrope when choosing a subject between doing something that is effective and important and ensuring that the proposal is not so ambitious that it has no prospect of reaching the statute book.
1126 My hon. Friend has certainly made a proposal which will be effective and important, as is clear from some of the examples already given in the debate. The tragic story of the rape seed oil which was sold in Spain recently as olive oil shows how important the subject can be. The ruined health of many unhappy people, the deaths, bereavement and sheer human misery can be caused by the nasty minority who, in the interests of making a fast buck, display complete indifference to human safety.
I should declare an interest at the outset. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham generously said, the Bill came into existence at the instance of the Environmental Health Officers Association, of which I have the privilege to be a vice-president. Much of the evidence available to my hon. Friend of these widespread and horrifying practices is traceable to the patience, tenacity and sheer dedication of many environmental health officers.
I hope that I shall not be ruled out of order if I seize the opportunity to pay a tribute, which we do not often have a chance to pay, to a profession which daily safeguards the health and comfort of us all. It is not glamorous work. Visiting slaughterhouses has no future as a spectator sport. I do not believe that many little boys tell their parents that when they grow up they want to be environmental health officers. Frequently these officers are the subject of criticism in respect of a complaint which they have not been able to resolve, but their successes pass unnoticed because they consist in the things which do not happen—the epidemics that are avoided and the scandals that never take place. Those who benefit probably never know what might have happened to them.
I do not spend much of my time contemplating honours lists, but if we use that method of recognising public service I recommend to those to whom it falls to consider those matters that they should look in the direction of environmental health officers. We are also grateful for the expertise which has been placed at the disposal of all hon. Members by the Consumers Association, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), and the National Consumer Council.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham has chosen a subject which can contribute much towards preventing abuse and protecting human happiness, and it is now clear that he has chosen a subject which seems likely to reach the statute book. Future generations will speak of the Atkinson Act or the Atkinson provisions, in a future consolidation Act, as they speak of the Herbert Act and the Morris Act.
§ Mr. Archer
I do not propose to get personal.
We have heard from my hon. Friend and others about some of the dangers that the Bill seeks to reduce. I agree with the Minister and the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) that it would be wrong to be overdramatic. We do not want to stop the nation enjoying its Sunday dinner. We are talking about what can happen. I was brought up to believe that one should hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
The task on which we are embarked will not undermine the confidence of our purchasers abroad in our exports, but the reverse. It will augment that confidence. We must consider some of the things which can happen and of which there is some evidence in limited cases.
1127 Corpses from the knackers yard find their way to the retail food trade for human consumption. Some animals will have died of a disease, the carcases may include abscesses, tumours or tapeworms. Some will not have been bled, so they contain congealed blood. The corpse will not have been inspected for barbiturates, antibiotics and other drugs consumed while the animal was alive. Animals killed in a knackers yard will not have been the subject of the hygiene precautions which, as the Minister rightly said, exist in licensed slaughterhouses. The flesh will be subject to infection from dirt and excreta and to cross-infection from other carcases.
In my youth, in the industrial Black Country where I was brought up, it was common to see people wasting on their feet from tuberculosis. Now we have a generation that does not even know what a tuberculosis patient looks like. It would be a tragedy if that were revived by any practice that we could prevent.
It is a revolting story. It is understandable that trade associations representing slaughterhouses and reputable retailers are troubled that some of those allegations may affect the confidence which the public place in them. For that reason associations such as the National Federation of Meat Traders and the Bacon and Meat Manufacturers Association are as anxious as anyone that we should deal with the problems, both because they have a proper concern for human safety and because they are afraid that people will be put off from eating their products. It is right that it should be reiterated that the vast majority of those who are engaged in that trade are extremely responsible and will do anything that they can to prevent those practices.
It must have been tempting to my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham to include many other measures which could have contributed to the same purpose. The report of the meat legislation review group, established by the Environmental Health Officers Association, under the chairmanship of Mr. Cova, lists a number of defects in the present method of control and makes a number useful suggestions, particularly in relation to making contaminated meat less available to the market.
Those who operate knackers yards do not always have the means of knowing the intended destination or use of the dead animals that are bought from them and taken away, but I cannot believe that they would not wish to accept responsibility for what becomes of the corpses so far as they can exercise some control. I am delighted that the Government are proposing to make compulsory the staining of unfit meat at the outset.
The group also suggested that vehicles for carrying knacker meat or unfit meat should be specially licensed, with a clear sign visible on the outside stating that the vehicle is used for that purpose. The sign should not be able to be conveniently removed or concealed. The group suggested that there should be stricter requirements about keeping records by those operating knackers yards or who are handling unfit meat, and if those who processed the unfit meat were required to keep more detailed records it would be easier to trace what becomes of a consignment or where it goes astray. I agree with the intervention made by the hon. and learned Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell).
It might be helpful if processors were restricted to receiving meats in quantities that were within their handling capacity. We are delighted that the Government propose to consider the compulsory marking of boxes. We 1128 hope that similar controls will be exercised over the importation of meat. Those are some of the proposals that we hope the Government will have in mind when they consider the matter.
The group also pointed out the problems arising from modern transport facilities, which were also mentioned by the Minister. A consignment can be moved quickly about the country and can change hands many times. Normally the powers of environmental health officers are confined to the area of their local authority. I stand to be corrected on that if I am wrong. It has long been recognised in international law that a warship or police vessel in hot pursuit of criminals is not compelled to stop dead at the edge of another country's territorial waters. We need a similar doctrine of hot pursuit in this area.
That is one of the respects where it would be helpful if the laws of England and of Scotland were brought together. I appreciate that it is a technical area and that it is also sensitive in many ways. We should exercise restraint in our proposals, but there are a number of respects where the laws of England and Scotland could be brought together to the advantage of both countries.
There is a distinction, which the Minister properly made. We have been discussing the law on unfit and contaminated meat. Shortly the House will consider the adjacent area of selling food which is not in accordance with the description of what the vendor contracted to sell. I am aware that the National Consumer Council and the Consumers Association have expressed anxiety about some aspects of the proposed meat products regulations. Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends will wish to elaborate on some of the startling possibilities which they may leave to dishonest traders to cheat housewives. Cheating people is one thing; poisoning them is in a different league. Under the present law it is curious that the maximum penalties for misdescribing food are greater than the maximum penalties for spreading botulism and salmonella.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham might have tackled all those matters, but his proposals are modest and restrained. Before I come to those proposals I should like to ask one question which the Minister may answer later, not because I wish to be tendentious or because I wish to embarrass her, but because it might resolve genuine puzzlement in the industry. The Minister's predecessor, in a parliamentary answer on 1 February 1980, said that the Government had carried out some consultations on food and drugs legislation, but did not propose to issue a consultation paper. Those concerned with those matters interpreted that as meaning that the Government had concluded that no great amendments were required. I hope that the hon. Lady can assure us that we are wrong about that or even that the Government have altered their mind. If so, there will be no criticism from the Labour Benches. We all alter our minds from time to time and sometimes that is in our favour.
My hon. Friend proposes, first, to increase the maximum penalties for these offences. We are dealing with crime on a large scale. The food and drugs legislation of the past related to the days when a trader cut a corner on the ice cream or adulterated the milk. It was dishonest, and it was sometimes dangerous, but it endangered only a few consumers, and since it entailed only a limited profit traders could be dissuaded by the risk of a modest fine. We are now speaking of the contamination of whole categories of meat, whole consignments in a large refrigerated van 1129 or fleet of vans, endangering the lives of countless people, risking major epidemics and with the promise of vast profits. The world has changed even since the Food and Drugs Act 1955. As the Minister pointed out, the fines under the Trades Descriptions Act 1968 are already substantially higher than those in the Act of 1955. We have the odd situation that selling pork and water as pork attracts a higher penalty than selling pork and salmonella germs as pork.
We all recollect the Anthony Animal Products case, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham referred, where to enable the court to impose a fine which bore any relation to the potential profits it was necessary to issue summonses relating to 183 separate offences. The Bill empowers magistrates to impose a more appropriate fine. The hon. Lady has said that is in the Criminal Justice Bill. I do not think anybody will mind in which vehicle it reaches the statute book.
The Bill also provides for imprisonment in excess of the three months available under the present Act. We are all concerned not to fill the prisons yet further than they already are, but this is simply bringing the sanction into line with the existing sanction under the Trade Descriptions Act. There are many in our prisons at the moment guilty of much less serious offences than those that we are discussing. Someone who is cold-bloodedly prepared to endanger the lives of numerous people in the interests of a substantial profit should be at the risk of a substantial prison sentence if the court thinks that that is appropriate.
The Bill also provides that proceedings for the infringement of the Food and Drugs Act 1955 may be taken on indictment where a particular offence appears, in all the circumstances, to merit that course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North and the Minister made clear. This is not only because increased penalties may be thought appropriate where summary proceedings are not being brought, but because it recognises the sheer scale of some modern offences. The type of operation that we are discussing involves long-term planning, complicated organisation and the movement of goods on a large scale, so when the case actually reaches the court its length, the amount of evidence and the degree of complication may be more appropriate to the Crown court than to the magistrates courts.
It is not only traders who have some apprehension that this may catch on as a fashion. We appreciate the concern of the Lord Chancellor's Office that we may be adding to the burdens of the Crown courts. It is a matter for my hon. Friend, but I would advise him to consider carefully the Government's proposals to defer the implementation of this proposition until the beginning of 1983. Many arrangements may have to be made. I do not believe that the lists of the Crown courts will be swamped with a vast number of these cases. I believe that there will be a very restricted number. What is important is that the possibility of such proceedings will act as a deterrent.
We must remember that we are not dealing with reputable dealers whose names are household words and who have a reputation to protect and who would be deterred by the publicity attendant on proceedings in a magistrates court, where no doubt they would feel compelled to plead guilty if it were appropriate. We are concerned with defendants who may not normally operate 1130 under their own names, who have no reputations, who do not greatly fear publicity and who will take advantage of every loophole and technicality to evade conviction and penalty. It makes sense to have available the possibility of proceedings on indictment. That is possible already under the Trade Descriptions Act for selling poplin shirts as cotton, and surely it is appropriate to the dangerous and unscrupulous rackets that we are considering.
Finally, my hon. Friend proposes to extend the time limits which at present exist for bringing proceedings. I appreciate that there are a number of technicalities here, but sometimes the meat in question has been in store for a long time before it reaches the ultimate consumer or even the ultimate retailer. The offence then does not come to light until it is outside the existing limits. Sometimes, as any environmental health officer can tell the House, the work entailed in tracing an offence and then preparing for prosecution may take many months. The Trade Descriptions Act 1968 allows a time limit of three years for some purposes.
I appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North that if the Bill reaches the statute book with clause 1 in its present form, which it is happily likely to do, it might be possible to deal with the problem by bringing proceedings on indictment. However, it may not always, as it has properly been pointed out, be appropriate to bring proceedings on indictment. It would be a pity if the authorities were compelled to bring proceedings on indictment where proceedings in the magistrates court would, but for the time limit, have been appropriate.
We all know that the course of history cannot be changed by legislation. Sometimes the purpose which the legislation seeks to achieve is unattainable. Sometimes it is not recognised as necessary and so it does not enjoy the co-operation of the public. Sometimes it prescribes remedies which are too complicated. My hon. Friend's proposals offer a purpose of which the whole House will approve. He approaches it in a way which sets out to achieve it as a matter of simple common sense. I am sure that the House and the whole community will be grateful to him.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Allan Stewart)
It has been suggested that it might assist the House if I said a brief word about the Scottish aspect, which has been mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) and Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) and the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead).
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West has temporarily slipped out of the Chamber because I was going to tell him that I fear I must decline the temptation to define in detail the contents of a haggis. I would point out that this week started with 25 January, when Scots and others all over the world celebrate the immortal memory, listen to the "Ode to the Haggis" and have a splendid meal of haggis. I am glad to reassure the House that haggis is good for you.
I assure the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) that I accept his general case for the law being brought into line on both sides of the border. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) said that the Bill specifically excluded Northern Ireland but not 1131 Scotland. However, I am advised that it is likely that the long title of the Bill, which is confined to the Food and Drugs Act 1955, an Act relating to England and Wales, may preclude the extension of the Bill to Scotland.
That is not a matter for Second Reading, when we are concerned with the substance and the broad implications of the legislation. The Scottish legislation comparable to the 1955 Act is the Food and Drugs (Scotland) Act 1956 and the Control of Food Premises (Scotland) Act 1977.
As to the incidents to which hon. Members have referred, we have no evidence of unfit meat infiltrating the food chain in Scotland. They have not been brought to our attention. There may be a number of reasons for that. I wish to stress the very high quality of Scottish meat which, as hon. Members on both sides will know, has not only a national but an international reputation.
However, I stress also that the market is somewhat different in Scotland. I could pay tribute to the discernment of Scottish housewives, but the argument is more specific. We have few slaughterhouses in Scotland. The market is less highly structured than in parts of England, so the distribution chain is somewhat shorter. In the market place in Scotland, the traditional butcher is still of great importance. However, I would reassure the House that we recognise that a potential problem exists and we are anxious to ensure that there should be no loopholes resulting from any differences in legislation north and south of the border.
Scottish legislation already has the most important of the increased powers proposed in the Bill. The maximum fine in Scotland is £1, 000. Scottish cases are triable summarily and on indictment under the 1956 Act. As to the other clauses, I assure the hon. Member for Tottenham that we shall watch the progress of his Bill carefully with a view to taking the opportunity to enact subsequently any useful changes that it brings into force.
On the more general question of unfit meat, the present law differs on each side of the border. The general framework is the same, but secondary legislation is different. We do not require meat fit for human consumption to be marked as such. That is because there appeared to be no need for such a regulation in 1961, when the current legislation was passed. Secondly, there are no regulations in Scotland requiring the sterilisation or staining of meat unfit for human consumption, although the powers for such regulations are available under the 1956 Act.
The reason is simple. There has been no call from local authorities or from the trade interests for parallel legislation in Scotland. However, I wish to reassure the House that, in the light of the hon. Member's Bill and the incidents that have been mentioned south of the border, we have started preliminary consultations at official level with the local authorities. We shall shortly produce a Scottish consultation paper which will ask those concerned for their views about what changes, if any, are necessary. I assure the House that during that process of consultation and decision making the Scottish Office will take full account of the points made not only in this debate, but as the Bill progresses through Parliament.
§ Mr. William Pitt (Croydon, North-West)
I wish to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Tottenham, (Mr. Atkinson) on his splendid Bill. I welcome what the Minister has said and the fact that the 1132 Government have taken the Bill on board and are supporting it. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Sandelson), if he had been here, would have wished to speak about the same points.
The public is greatly reassured this morning by the fact that such trade is only a small proportion of the meat and food trade. I pay tribute to the hundreds of butchers and slaughterhouses in Britain who carry on quite legitimate businesses and provide us with some of the most excellent food in Europe, from my experience. However, a tip of the trade is tempted by the considerable profits that car be made. The hon. Member for Tottenham told us that the price of knacker meat is £350 a tonne. One does not need to be a good mathematician to realise that the profit that can be made from that is greater than the profit that can be made from genuine meat, which costs much more per tonne.
The public should also be reassured of the continuing powers of environmental health officers. Before I came to the House, I was a member of an environmental health department, although mercifully—having heard the horrendous descriptions this morning—I was not involved with meat inspection. However, I worked closely with colleagues who were involved with meat inspection and I am aware of the appalling conditions that exist not only in certain illicit meat preparation plants but in shops and premises where the attraction of the hygiene regulations is not as great as it should be.
People in the streets should be reassured that the majority of shops that sell meat and food products ale perfectly honourable and obey the hygiene regulations. They need little encouragement from local authorities to do so. Environmental health officers still have the power to check and to encourage people to obey food hygiene regulations. I do not believe that the provisions of the Bill will alter that in any way or that we shall see a mass of prosecutions in the county court. Butchers who retail meat and other food products that come under the hygiene regulations should also be reassured.
I wish to be brief, because most of what must he said has already been said. I assure the House of the support of the Liberal Party for the Bill. I hope that we shall see a marked improvement in the appalling position about which we have heard for some time. I hope that eventually, because of much higher fines and swingeing sentences when the Bill becomes law, such trade will be stamped out. The trade is not only dangerous but appalling and it exploits an otherwise honourable and excellent food supply industry.
§ Mr. John Farr (Harborough)
First, I wish to join the House in congratulating the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson). I am lucky enough to be one of his sponsors and he has put his finger upon an important matter today. The Bill will have no difficulty in making progress, and rightly so.
I wish to refer to the remarks made by the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart), about Scottish interests. He said that he did not believe that the Bill applied to Scotland, and added that, because of the construction of the long title and because the Food and Drugs Act 1955 applied to England and Wales, it would be impossible to 1133 apply it to Scotland. I urge him to reconsider that, because long titles can be amended. There is plenty of precedent for that.
Secondly, I remind my hon. Friend that there is evidence of knacker meat going in lorry loads between England and Scotland. While we admire the name that Scottish beef enjoys—second only in Britain to the beef from Leicestershire—and we admire some of the fine brand names, if the hon. Gentleman wishes to preserve that name in its present unblemished state, he must consider the evidence carefully. This trade takes place—
§ Mr. Allan Stewart
My hon. Friend's first point is not one for me, but I am advised that there may be a technical problem. The Government cannot, of course, make a judgment. Secondly, I reassure my hon. Friend on his general point. There is no lack of will in Scotland. We appreciate that the matter is serious, and, as I hope I made clear to the House, any necessary measures will be taken as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Farr
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. It was, of course, the excellent report by the environmental health officers that referred to the fact that evidence exists of the shipment by road of knacker meat from Scotland to England and vice versa. Evidence was given that in those circumstances the meat quickly loses its identity. Many cases have been researched of meat apparently going from London to Edinburgh and back again. That is an important point, which my hon. Friend should take on board.
I remind my hon. Friend that, generally, Scotland has its own special view of English and Welsh legislation. Occasionally it is a pity that it does not keep absolutely in tandem with the rest of the United Kingdom. During the passage of the Deer Act 1980, Scotland thought that it would not be associated because it would have its own legislation. No Scottish legislation is yet on the statute book. The problems that the Act dealt with in England and Wales have been helped considerably by it, and I believe that it would also have helped Scotland.
The Bill is long overdue. In his experience, the hon. Member for Tottenham has been wise, in so far as he has not tried to do too much. He has picked out two important points from a host of important matters that need attention. He has put on one side matters which could have been included in the Bill but might have caused it to become unmanageable. We admire not only his luck in securing an early place in the ballot but his wisdom in going for the two important points and trying to get them on the statute book. I assure him that if the Bill succeeds—I am sure that it will—it will meet a real public need.
I have constituency interests in the matter. I have been in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for some time on the need to stain beef. Only this week a case came before Leicester Crown court and was heard by the county magistrates. Again, the environmental health officers, who have been alert and hard-working in this whole sorry racket, gave evidence that they were trying to break a racket in unfit meat which was netting up to £740 a week profit. That profit was presumably tax free.
Evidence was given that two Bedfordshire butchers admitted 31 charges of selling meat that was unfit for 1134 human consumption and other offences under the Food and Drugs Act 1955. The meat was alleged to have come from a knackers yard in Wigston and sent to a butcher's shop in Dunstable. The butcher in Dunstable admitted the offences. Evidence was given that the carcases contained signs of pleurisy, congestion and abnormal kidneys. There is no doubt that that case, which was heard on Monday and Tuesday this week, is an example of the general pattern of what has been happening nationally for a long time. I have also been approached by the Harborough authority, and both my chief environmental health officers are taking a great interest in the matter.
I told the hon. Member for Tottenham a few moments ago that when his Bill is considered in Committee other ideas will probably be put forward. This has been a wide-ranging debate and hon. Members on both sides of the House have said that, excellent though the Bill is, it could possibly be added to in Committee. One of the matters that could be raised is the necessity to stain with green or purple tinge all meat that is not fit for human consumption. The staining should take place as soon as possible after slaughter with an indelible and heat-resistant dye. It has been pointed out that it is important for officials to obtain sufficient powers of access to search and enter premises in order to ascertain what is going on. It would also be a great help if accurate records were kept by dealers in meat.
In that respect, I draw the attention of the House to section 3 of the Deer Act 1980, which applies to England and Wales. It requires records to be kept of all transactions in venison. As I said, the Act does not apply to Scotland, but it may be worth the House looking at section 3—if not now, in Committee. It lays down a pattern of how all licensed venison dealers are to keepa book containing records in the form set out in Schedule 1 to this Act",which shall be available for inspection by all authorised persons for up to three years.
Although section 3 is long, the form is simple. It has about six or eight columns. The dealer must show where he obtained the carcase or venison and to whom he has passed it. It refers to reference dates, registered numbers, weights and so on. Those must be entered on the form. If such a system could be introduced for meat dealers in Britain, it could be helpful in meeting the problem. I believe that that is something that the House would like to consider.
It has already been suggested that all horsemeat should be roller stamped. I fully agree with that. It is done already for certain Danish products which come to this country.
It has already been said—I should like to reinforce the argument—that there is a need to improve the packaging of meat in transit in all its forms. Whether it is in wooden boxes or other containers, it is not good enough that unhygienic containers should be used, perhaps several times, without proper identification. I hope that in the Bill, or more probably in my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary's meat product regulations, labelling and packaging requirements will be improved.
I should like to refer in a little more detail to the meat product regulations introduced by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 17 July 1981. Many proposals in the regulations are related to matters in the Bill. The proposed meat product regulations deal with the minimum meat content of sausages, meat pies, beefburgers, luncheon meat and so on: 1135All meat products, other than cured meat, would have to carry a declaration of their total meat content. Cured meat products, including ham and bacon, would be required to carry a declaration of any curing solution in excess of the specified limit.I believe I am right in saying that the whole House welcomes those sensible proposals, which are shortly to be introduced. My reason for referring to them today is not so much to comment on what is in them, but to ask what is not in them, and why not. The regulations are excellent so far as they go, but I hope that my hon. Friend will produce a definite series of further regulations if the improvements to which I have referred cannot be included in the Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend can tighten up, at an early date, the existing regulations by issuing further proposals which should include a firm requirement about staining. I should like offal to be stained as well.
The meat product regulations should also be strengthened so as to tighten up on the fat content in meat products. In the proposed regulations, there is a reference to a need for a specified minimum meat content. The regulations require a declaration of total meat content. The situation will be improved when the regulations are fully effective. For example, under the proposed regulationscanned minced meat shall have a minimum meat content of 90 per cent. of which 65 per cent. shall be lean meat.That helps to clear up a great deal of confusion. It helps the public to understand what minced meat, for example, really means. Having studied the regulations, I cannot see what happens to ordinary minced meat—in other words, the minced meat which is not canned, and which is available from the butcher's shop. Is that to be dealt with by a series of further regulations, or would it be an appropriate subject for a new clause to the Bill?
I am sure that the hon. Member for Tottenham and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will have seen a report on minced meat which was published yesterday by the London Chief Environmental Health Officers Association. The report gives a number of important conclusions drawn by the association after a prolonged study of minced meat. The association's conclusions may be summarised as follows. The association twice urges the Government to take early action. On page 1, the Government are asked toset a standard so that the purchaser can be guaranteed value for money".On page 6, paragraph 6, the association says in conclusion that itgives cause for concern. Consumers can have little faith in butchers supplying them with mince the quality of which should be but is not reflected by the description at sale or the price. There is a good chance of getting a similar product whether you pay 56p or 110p a pound.The report continues:Above 110p a pound the product improves but one-third of these samples still contained over 20 per cent. fat.
§ Mr. Peter Mills
I accept what my hon. Friend says, but does he not agree that the housewife can play a role in this? If she buys mince containing 30 or 40 per cent. fat, which runs out in the pan and leaves a horrible sticky mess, she will not go to that butcher again.
§ Mr. Farr
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In London, there is a choice of many butchers. That is an important privilege which may not exist in small country towns and certainly does not exist in remoter areas where there may be only one butcher. There is no choice there. To that extent, the consumer must be protected.
§ Mr. Norman Atkinson
Is it not remarkable that, according to the London Chief Environmental Health Officers Association, the housewife may get almost exactly the same product whether she pays 56p or 110p per pound? It is extraordinary that the price of mince should vary by almost 100 per cent. when, analytically, the product is the same.
§ Mr. Farr
The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on an important point. Such variation is extraordinary. I hope that the Minister has taken that point on board. I especially hope that she will look at the detailed results of the survey. I shall not trouble the House with them all now but paragraph 4, from points (a) to (k), gives the 118 samples taken and all the variations of their contents. It states that 118 samples were taken and sets out the variations in the content of the samples. Paragraph 7.5 urges that legislation be introduced to provide a maximum fat content for minced beef and other named minced meats. The report must receive the full support of the House.
The Institution of Environmental Health Officers produced an excellent report, some parts of which were most effective in calling public attention to an important matter that has often been pushed to one side when more startling things have come to light. In its report the institution supplied a great deal of information to hon. Members on both sides of the House. It has alerted its members and colleagues throughout the country to provide it with evidence of relevant cases as they come to their attention so that they may be included in documentation. The report provides graphic evidence that the entire story hinges on the terribly low and paltry level of existing penalties. The institution's report is long and detailed but it can be summarised by saying that it is desperately concerned about the meagre level of the penalties.
In page 9 of the report the institution refers to court cases thoughout the country with the exception of Scotland. It refers to several recent court cases and states that many more are pending. It observes that the cases cover the length and breadth of the country from Cumbria to Somerset and from London to Wales. All the cases highlight the incredible effort, time, ingenuity, patience and risks of the local authority environmental health officers have taken to bring successful prosecutions before the courts.
The report quotes examples of long surveillance operations, hot pursuit tactics, motorway chases and what are described as Sweeney-type raids. Vast quantities of unfit meat have been seized. In one instance local authority staff managed to manhandle 30 tons of meat on to lorries to secure its safe disposal. That operation took place on a cold December night. The condition of the meat was so bad that one of the officers was violently sick.
As I have said, the theme of the report is the environmental health officers' despair at the paltry sentences that criminals have received once they have been brought before the courts. The hon. Member for Tottenham has said that a key point of his Bill is to toughen the penalties and make it more difficult for a person to engage in this trade and get away with it. The report points out that the fines imposed by magistrates courts are no greater now than they were in 1928. It is suggested that a fiftyfold increase could be made to allow for inflation. The environmental health officers point out that there is 1137 considerable similarity between offences under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 and those under the Food and Drugs Act 1955.
The Bill therefore proposes to increase the penalty in magistrates courts to £1, 000. It is not right that higher penalties should be available for the misrepresentation of a product than for the sale of unfit or diseased food. There is no justification for penalties relating to the sale of food being less than those relating to the sale of shirts and nightdresses. Food offences affect not merely the sale of one can or one sausage, but trade worth hundreds and thousands of pounds. Recently, there has been considerable evidence to show that because fines are so low and paltry and because excessive profits can be made, such trade is continuing to flourish.
My hon. Friends and I received an interesting document from the Consumers Association. I believe that it worked in tandem with the chief environmental health officers. Some telling documentation has been produced to back up the need for the Bill's twin purposes. I refer to the proposed increase in penalties and the length of detection time to be permitted. The Consumers Association has supplied a huge file of evidence and some of the examples are telling and should be made more widely available. For example, in February 1981 a conference of environmental health officers estimated that between 10, 000 and 15, 000 tons of unfit meat found its way into sausages, beefburgers and tins in any one year. At the conference in Harrogate one of the chief environmental health officers reckoned that at least 2 per cent. of "beef" used in manufacturing in 1980 came from doubtful sources. Another spokesman at the conference mentioned evidence that dead cows and horses could be bought for as little as £20 or £30 each and sold by unscrupulous agents and dealers for £200 or £300. A fantastic profit can be made.
The Consumers Association gave us some other documentation of an incident about 11 months ago which was widely reported in the Sunday newspapers, including The Sunday Times. The article showed that even the biggest, most careful and best-run firms of butchers could go astray. A small butcher or dealer in a little village might be excused for not knowing the regulations or not having the money to implement the costly requirements of some of the EEC slaughterhouse regulations. However, there is no earthly reason why some of the big beef retailers, such as Wimpy and Vestey, should come unstuck, unless it is because of the ineffectiveness of present regulations.
The examples in the article in The Sunday Times of 15 February 1981 show that Wimpy admitted that it twice came close to marketing horsemeat hamburgers. In 1981, Walls, the well-known meat retailerspublicly withdrew batches of canned meat from shops because of fears that they contained horsemeat.In January 1981, The Sunday Times disclosed that kangaroo meat, designed for zoos in London and the North,had been sold by a Fulham petfood manufacturer as 'minced beef' fit for human consumption.Those examples, which as I said were supplied by the Consumers Association, show that it is vital for the House to take action in this connection.
One of the most important features of this matter is that the racket itself—and it is a racket—involves about 250, 000 tonnes of unfit meat which is available 1138 haphazardly on the market each year. If that meat were good beef, it would be worth at least £1 a pound. Thus, the racket is worth £500 million a year.
I wish the hon. Member for Tottenham every success with his Bill, which we on this side will certainly support.
§ Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)
I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson), not only on his good fortune in drawing such a high place in the ballot, but on selecting this issue. It is a particular pleasure for me to congratulate him, because the general distaste that I feel for his political views is mitigated by his personal charm. It is, therefore, for me and for many of my hon. Friends a unique occasion to be in a position not only to agree with him, but to offer him our sincere congratulations. If he can go down in history for the "Atkinson sausage", that would perhaps be a better epitaph to his political career—from the point of view of Conservative Members—than his political views, which we find difficult to accept.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
I am sure that there is nothing in the hon. Gentleman's private life that is not attractive. He is a popular Member, and it is a pleasure to support him on this occasion.
I am sure that the whole House would be happy to associate itself with the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer), who spoke of the great debt that this country owes to our environmental health officers. He mentioned the tragic case in Spain, where I believe several hundred people have died through poisoning of this kind. We are fortunate that we have not had cases of that nature.
We should bear in mind much of the unsung work that is done on our behalf by environmental health officers. They have been particularly active in promoting the Bill. The environmental health officer in my constituency contacted me long before the ballot for Private Members' Bills, to extract a commitment from me that, were I so fortunate as the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson), I would promote such a Bill. They were no doubt equally active in persuading the hon. Gentleman to bring forward his Bill. I should like to place on record particularly the work of Mr. Cova, the chief environmental health officer for Hammersmith and Fulham. My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens), who I see in his place, will no doubt seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to refer to the matter.
The hon. Member for Tottenham has been successful in achieving a Bill that is modest in its aims. I was delighted when the Government made it clear that they intend to support the hon. Gentleman. All that the Bill seeks to do is to bring about a substantial increase in the period of imprisonment, to introduce trial by jury, to make possible unlimited fines and to lengthen the time scales within which environmental health officers have to operate after samples come into their possession.
It is my hope, as I believe it is the hope of the promoters and, indeed, of all hon. Members, that the Government will not allow themselves to be deterred by the hon. Gentleman's modesty. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman 1139 would have no objection if the Government saw fit in Committee to bring forward a number of amendments to extend the scope of the Bill. I hope to bring to the Minister's attention a number of areas in which, I believe, the Government could usefully bring forward amendments. Hon. Members would not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to make commitments at this stage. I hope, however, that she will take careful note of suggestions that are made and consider giving the Government's view in Committee.
The background to the Bill is that it amends the Food and Drugs Act 1955, which was itself consolidated from the Food and Drugs Act 1938—again a consolidating Act. It is worth reminding the House that the maximum penalties under the Food and Drugs (Adulteration) Act 1928—a fine of £100 and three months imprisonment—have not altered to the present day. The Institution of Environmental Health Officers, in its report, does not speculate on the rate of inflation since that time. That is wise. The institution limits itself to pointing out that incomes have risen by about 50 times since that date. The case for increasing the maximum fines and terms of imprisonment is well made.
In the same period the whole operation of the food industry has changed dramatically. The original Act, I imagine, was aimed at small local traders, the adulteration of ice cream and that sort of issue. The food market today involves huge conglomerates and sometimes transnational companies dealing in large quantities of items. According to the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, 1p a pound on meat is eqivalent to £22 a tonne. When one considers the tonnages now involved, £22 a tonne is a considerable amount of profit for a criminal to make.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Thompson), who used to be a butcher, has been led off into the parliamentary equivalent of the knackers yard—the Whips Office—and is unable to speak on the Bill. However, I discussed it with him this morning and he illustrated the change that has taken place in the food industry by telling me that when he was a boy working in a butcher's shop in his home town there were in one street a butcher's shop selling clean beef, another next door selling pork, a shop across the road selling frozen meat, one on the corner selling tripe and a cow butcher on the opposite corner. It would be rare to find such a spread of shops today. They would be concentrated in a large supermarket, which would be a large buyer in the meat market.
The food industry works on very small margins. It is a competitive industry, which is good for the customer—the distribution of food and the competitiveness of our industry give us an edge over many other countries in Western Europe—but the scale and complexity of the industry has resulted in unscrupulous dealers being able to make considerable profits. We are not dealing with someone adding water to milk in a corner shop dairy, which is what the existing penalties were intended to deal with.
We should consider why the trade has experienced such considerable growth in the past 10 years. The environmental health officers point to two main causes. The first is the glut of knacker meat due to changes in the Southern Ireland regulations dealing with pet food. I suggested earlier to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that the Government should consider adopting 1140 similar regulations. They have led to British producers of knacker meat having a glut. British pet food manufacturers do not buy the meat for export to Southern Ireland.
The second reason is the increased demand from the meat manufacturing trade for manufacturing-type me at, which is in short supply because of EEC regulations. We are talking about the substitution of beef, pork or offal by knacker meat, unfit meat from slaughterhouses, other meat from slaughterhouses imported for use as pet food and meat illegally slaughtered.
The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West reminded the House of what knacker meat is. The unhygienic conditions, the diseases that the meat can carry and the barbiturates, antibiotics and other drugs that may be found in the carcases are terrifying. It is of great concern that knacker meat may find its way on to people's tables.
The report of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers also highlights the great difficulties that officers face in trying to trace and follow through various cases. Beasts may be slaughtered illegally in the backs of lorries or on farms, and it is difficult and often long and hard work to trace such meat. The Government should consider extending the rights of hot pursuit for environmental health officers to trace illegal slaughter.
Once inspected, all animals are stamped with local authority stamps. These may be forged or stolen. The use of a stolen or forged stamp can increase the value of a stolen carcase 20-fold. At present the practice is not an offence, and I hope that my hon. Friend will look at the problem before the Bill goes into Committee.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) mentioned the case histories put to us by the environmental health officers. At the end of the report they make a series of suggestions. I hope that the Government will consider these and bring forward amendments before we reach the Committee stage. The suggestions include the licensing of pet food handlers and processors and the assumption that meat handled on such premises is automatically considered unfit for human consumption. The power to detain food for testing or to check its destination would be an important and useful one for environmental health officers, as would the power to detain food outside their area when in hot pursuit.
The power to seize and require the forfeiture of horsemeat and so on which has been sold fraudulently as beef to prevent its being resold into the trade would also be useful. Several such cases are quoted in the report. The power to condemn whole consignments of a product when part of it is unfit but where it is impossible to show which part would also be useful, as would be the power to seize documents, which exists under the fair descriptions legislation. The licensing or control of food premises to control who operates them and where is also important, as is the extension of disqualification requirements, so that persons found guilty of perpetrating the offences outlined can be prevented from setting up new food premises or continuing with an existing one.
The environmental health officers also believe that there should be complete harmonisation of food legislation throughout the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has given a commitment that decisions by the House on the Bill, including the amendments which we hope that the 1141 Government will move to strengthen its application, will be applied in Scotland. It is extremely important that that should be done.
I hope that the Minister will consider bringing forward as an amendment in Committee requirements for adequate marking and stamping of wholesale meat products. That point has been raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell), who referred to the marking of boxes. No doubt, he will wish to make further reference to that if he speaks later.
I should like to end my brief remarks by saying something that I have said before on Friday debates. Those of my hon. Friends who are connoisseurs of Friday mornings will know that the House is not well attended on Fridays. For my part, I wish that the House could devote more of its time to introducing measures of the kind that we discuss on Fridays, which are often Private Members' Bills. I wish that the Government would devote more time to bringing forward worthy, albeit sometimes dull, measures of this type, which are of great importance.
I know that all Departments have pigeon-holes full of such measures. No Government in recent history, be they Conservative or Labour, have been able to resist the temptation of devoting 90 per cent. of the House's time to discussions on complicated things such as the PSBR, the medium-term financial strategy and so on. Although such matters excite hon. Members to great passion, they are of less interest to our fellow citizens than important legislation such as we have been discussing this morning. I join right hon. and hon. Members in congratulating the hon.Member for Tottenham and I hope that the Atkinson sausage will go down as his greatest political achievement in his long career in the House.
§ Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)
My hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) referred to connoisseurs of Friday morning debates. This one has been particularly agreeable, because it has taken the form of a love-in between Conservative and Opposition Members. Perhaps the taxpayers will wish to provide a loving cup, so that we may all extend it to the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) and his hon. Friends. It is all the more pleasure when a sheep that has strayed ends up on the same side as ourselves and not in any of the undesirable places about which we have heard today.
I am one of the sponsors of the hon. Gentleman's Bill, and glad to be so, particularly because the trigger for the Bill came from my constituency, as the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) and my hon. Friends the Member for Watford and the Minister have been kind enough to mention.
Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will have in the forefront of their minds the fact that Fulham has led the fight on this issue. In 1903 the municipality advanced proposals along much the same lines as those of today. Then, the maximum penalty for breaches of the law was £20. The Government did not respond on that occasion. How welcome it is that, where Arthur Balfour and Campbell-Bannerman failed, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary should stride forward into the breach, positive, supportive and responsive.
If the environmental health officer for the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham should have 1142 occasion to read the Official Report of the debate, he will find himself referred to in almost every speech. I am glad to follow the fashion. Bruce Cova has done a tremendous job, both in the desk research that has illuminated the documents which so many hon. Members have before them, and in the amazing television serial-type adventures which he and his colleagues undertook to achieve success in identifying and bringing to book offenders under the provisions that we are considering.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith, North (Mr. Soley), who is not in the Chamber, but who has been in and out during the debate, asked me to associate him with the pride that our borough takes in the role played by Mr. Cova, which I am delighted to do. The hon. Member is also a sponsor of the Bill.
Reference has been made to the chain of events that led to the arrest and prosecution of representatives of Anthony Animal Products Ltd. It involved round-the-clock surveillance, following road vehicles for many miles cross-country and through other local authority areas, the investigation of company transactions over the length and breadth of Britain and the tracing of meat throughout the vast networks of companies. As has been said, the meat never appears. It is bought and sold through paper transactions between dealers, which makes it all the more difficult to trace the point at which honest mistake ends and deliberate wrongdoing begins.
Statements have had to be taken from hundreds of individuals and, because of the low fine that applies to each offence, in order to produce a case that had even the beginnings of a chance of imposing appropriate penalties, much more repetitive work had to be undertaken than would have been necessary under a reasonable system of law. The investigation and presentation of the case was incredibly complicated and it was not helped at the outset by the fact that it was not easy to get help from the police. Only following a parliamentary question to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did the police begin to show interest in the investigation that was under way. The outcome was that the ratepayers of my borough were faced with a bill of £52, 000, to say nothing of the man-hours that were invested in the project. The Anthony company went into liquidation and, of the costs awarded against it, only £4, 000 was forthcoming to set against the £52, 000. Perhaps the rate support grant could take into account the burdens that Hammersmith ratepayers are carrying for the benefit of others throughout the country.
What is even more astonishing is that within seven days of the verdict the same individual was back in business with another company, under another name, which appears to be conducting business of an identical character. I make no allegations about the new company, but following the great volume of advice that has been given to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the Criminal Justice Bill now before us in Committee, we should perhaps consider taking powers to ban convicted criminals from continuing to conduct the same kind of business, through other companies and under other names, following conviction for serious offences.
I realise that that is perhaps more a matter for one of our endless series of companies legislation, but where so serious a risk to health is in question I am sure that it will seem to many hon. Members, as it does to me, to be wrong to allow that to happen. The Anthony company had a turnover of approximately £1½ million a year when 1143 prosecuted, which all went up in smoke, but it bobbed up as a new company only seven days later. Surely we should try to prevent that from happening.
My hon. Friend for Watford has taken us through the conclusions of the Institution of Environmental Health Officers at the end of its report. I do not propose to do that again, but I will comment on one or two points that it made. I do not think that any Conservative Member would leap with joy at the idea of introducing further restraints, further licences and further controls. Already, people who seek to found new small businesses in the food industry often become terribly confused about the number of authorities whose permission and approval they have to obtain. Most of them know that it is sensible to have a solicitor to carry out research in the Land Registry. Most of them know, all too well, the role of the Customs and Excise and the VAT inspector. Some of them have heard about planning departments and the requirements for obtaining planning permission. Others have encountered the fire prevention officer, the borough surveyor and the police.
Today, the environmental health officer also has to be consulted, and if he is not he is apt to turn up after the business has opened and tell the people concerned either to close or to carry out substantial modifications to their plans. It may be that the moment has arrived when local authorities and others should get together. There is already a good deal of help of this type available in my constituency, but it is not just the borough surveyor who is involved. Sometimes the borough surveyor and fire officer say "Yes" and the next week the GLC fire officer says "No". Perhaps we should begin to formulate a way in which people embarking on new businesses can cover all those factors in a single office and under one roof.
What I am suggesting today will add to the difficulties of honest people—the majority—seeking to set up in business. We must accept, as the environmental health officers urge, that the moment has arrived when petfood handlers and processors should be licensed. Food premises should also be licensed or registered. After all, those dealing with milk, ice cream, sausages, slaughterhouses and knackers yards all require licences. The point at which an honest transaction or an honest mistake merges into a deliberate criminal act moves backwards and forwards up and down the line. We cannot exclude all suspicion and all blame at the point of sale. The retailer may be a party to a fraud. He is the person through whose hands the damage is done to the consumer public. We should consider also the much wider issue of the retail food and pet food industry handlers and processors.
I come now to the question of detaining food for testing. We should be clear about this. Environmental health officers already have the power to enter premises, seize food and destroy it. The power of prosecution following such action lies through the police. The environmental health officers do not have the power to test food which they suspect could be unfit, but which they have not yet concluded with certainty is unfit. Imported food products can be detained for five days while they are examined to ensure that they are fit for the purpose for which they are intended. It would not be unreasonable if the same provisions were applied to food that originates in the home market.
When the Bill achieves its Second Reading—as I am confident that it now will—and goes into Committee, I hope that the opportunity will be given both to introduce 1144 Government amendments and perhaps amendments from Back Benchers to ensure that the Bill is as comprehensible and strong as the technicalities of parliamentary legislation permit. I am confident that we have today begun an important process of law, which should no doubt have begun many years ago. When it culminates in legislation, it will not only redound to the credit of the hon. Member for Tottenham and the Institution of Environmental Health Officers and the Consumers Association, but will be of great benefit to every man, woman and child in our country.
§ Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)
I shall not deal with those points in the Bill which can be dealt with in Committee. Private Members' time is precious, and other hon. Members wish to bring Bills forward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson). He has received congratulations from both sides of the House. The Bill has received universal acclaim. I hope that it will soon receive its Second Reading.
It is significant that last Friday—which was the first (lay this Session for discussing Private Members' Bills—we debated a consumer protection Bill which dealt with goods and services. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) was lucky in the ballot. My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham, who was second in the ballot, has also chosen what is essentially a consumer protection measure. I hope that his Bill will soon become law.
It is important that such consumer protection measures should be considered. It is regrettable, as I said, that such measures are not coming forward as Government Bills. A great deal of the legislation passed in this Parliament will be regretted as the months go by. I am sure that a great deal of it will be repealed in the next Parliament. It is in private Members' time that we have had measures that will he universally welcomed.
There is a loophole in the law that deals with the problems covered by the Bill. For some time, there has been concern about the quality of meat. This is confirmed by the various news reports brought to our attention by the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr), who referred to the issues that he faces in his constituency. People who buy meat pies and then read reports about kangaroo meat and camel meat are disturbed and put off. If the problems continue, we shall be having Kentucky fried camel shops and kangaroo burgers. People should be protected and should know that when they buy goods from retail shops—butchers' shops in this case—they are obtaining products of a certain quality. The same should apply to restaurants.
Although the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food keeps an eye on this problem and does a good job, as does the Department of Trade on retail matters, it is a setback that we do not have a Department of consumer welfare that could bring all those matters together and examine the need for legislation. It should be a Department completely concerned with protecting the consumer. Although we have bodies such as the National Consumer Council and the Consumers Association—I pay tribute to them—there is a need for a voice in Cabinet, a Government Department to examine the need for legislation, to highlight the abuses that are taking place and to deal with those problems.
1145 Since Britain joined the Common Market, the common agricultural policy has led to a difference in the retailing and storage of meat. That has led to problems. The policy of intervention, which has been brought about by the CAP, is leading to a deterioration of the quality of meat. From time to time we read about beef mountains. One wonders how long such beef has been held in storage, and what eventually happens to at. Very often, that meat comes back on to the market and is sold to consumers. It could be old meat which is deteriorating. There are problems about that.
Consumer protection is needed in another area. Under the Labour Government, a measure was passed providing that meat should be sold by a specified date. That, too, was an advance. When consumers buy meat products, they should ensure that a few days remain before the last permitted date of sale. After noting a disturbing situation in the Refreshment Department of the House of Commons, I suggested to the Services Committee that items for sale in the Tea Room should be removed as the date marked on the package drew near.
Clearly, there is still a great need for consumer protection. I shall delay the House no longer than to say that I regard the Bill as a significant advance and I hope that the Atkinson Act will soon be on the statute book.
§ Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Hemel Hempstead)
As the hour draws close to that at which the mind might turn to a hamburger or a beefburger, I am grateful for the opportunity to join in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) on his good fortune and good sense in bringing forward this important measure. He has done so in a modest way and it looks as though the Bill may be expanded and improved with the help of the Government, whereas most hon. Members bring forward in an over-elaborate way measures which are promptly cut down and emasculated. If the hon. Gentleman's Bill is passed, he will have proved himself a skilled psychologist as well as an experienced parliamentarian.
I notice that the hon. Gentleman and I share the bad habit of drawing caricatures of other people. I am much relieved that he has not indulged in it during the debate. He opened the debate concisely—I apologise for the fact that I was not here to listen to the whole of his speech—and has listened patiently to many long speeches.
We are debating an important subject. I am delighted that it has received such a positive reaction from my hon. Friend the Minister and from the Government, and that it looks as though we shall achieve constructive legislation. I also join in congratulating the Institution of Environmental Health Officers. My local chief environmental health officer in Hemel Hempstead and his senior environmental health officer who runs the meat inspection department have taken the closest interest in this subject, and it has affected a number of aspects of the trade in and around my constituency. Indeed, my local senior environmental health officer, Mr. Ablett, gave a detailed paper at the recent Harrogate conference to which reference has been made in the debate and on which I, too, shall draw.
The seriousness of the matter will be realised when people whose thoughts might be turning to a beefburger 1146 recognise the size of the manufactured meat trade in this country—350, 000 tonnes of manufactured beef are processed and consumed in Britain. The Institution of Environmental Health Officers estimates that some 2 per cent. of that is probably introduced by the illicit meat trade and is therefore unfit meat of one kind or another.
The anxiety of the legitimate meat trade is absolutely proper. As was rightly said by other hon. Members, we must not get this out of proportion. The vast majority of the meat trade runs its affairs carefully and scrupulously and provides high quality products. None the less, due to the present state of legislation and the difficulties of enforcement—as we know from some of the household names mentioned in the debate, such as Wimpy, Vestey and other excellently run organisations—practically no organisation can put its hand on its heart and be certain that it has not sold some illicit meat.
In proportionate terms one in 50 hamburgers or beefburgers might contain some illicit meat if 2 per cent. is a correct estimate. It is a serious matter for those of us who, after visiting the cinema or the theatre, or at the middle of the day, wish to buy proper food from almost any outlet.
We must not exaggerate the problem but we must not minimise it either. We must take the right steps to correct it. It has been stated in some of the meat trade journals, especially by one outspoken gentleman, that protective measures are unnecessary and that no one has ever died after eating bad meat. However, salmonella poisoning has been on the increase over recent years. There are dangers in consuming meat which contains antibiotics and barbiturates, to which attention has been drawn by the experts.
It is our duty to ensure that those whom we provide and pay to protect us have the necessary weapons to enable them to do their job. The temptation to indulge in the illicit meat trade is overwhelming. The value of a carcase if it can be sold for human consumption increases fivefold or tenfold. It is said that good quality pet food meat will retail for 18 to 25p a pound, whereas if it is introduced into the market for human consumption the price will jump immediately to 56p a pound. When that immediate profit of 30p is multiplied by 2, 240 the benifit of selling off a ton of unfit meat for human consumption is only too apparent.
If 2 per cent. of 350, 000 tons of beef comes on to the market illicitly, about 7, 000 tons has to be removed from the human consumption market. However, we are dealing not only with beef. We must include pork, horsemeat, sheepmeat and kangaroo meat. That means that about 10, 000 to 15, 000 tons of meat comes into the trade illicitly. How can we most effectively deal with it?
The Bill is set against the background of the Food and Drugs Act 1955 and the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. In my professional life I have had considerable experience of prosecutions under both Acts. I have acted for the prosecution and for the defence. I have no hesitation in congratulating the hon. Gentleman on seeking to make the 1968 Act one of his models. It has been an extremely effective Act which has highlighted and corrected many misdemeanours and even serious crimes to the benefit of consumers.
The raising of penalties is manifestly necessary. The object of the first clause is the tenfold raising of penalties. In the appalling Fulham case involving Anthony Animal Products Ltd. the fines were massively smaller than the 1147 prosecution's costs. The fines in that case, could they have been paid, could properly have been well up into the £50, 000 mark, bearing in mind the quantities of meat known to have been illicitly handled by that firm. New legislation is needed so that it is not necessary to bring 183 different offences before the court to produce a serious penalty. That does not have to happen under the Trade Descriptions Act.
The proper way to deal with deliberate courses of conduct involving large quantities of meat and high illicit profits over a long period must be to bring a case upon indictment. That may not be necessary for a first offence, but if it has happened before or has happened in a big way the comparatively rare but salutary penalties that may be imposed after a conviction on indictment are amply merited. Health is being put at risk and huge profits are being made in the process. Unfit meat is being put on the market. The Bill is absolutely right to allow a case to go to the Crown court upon indictment. As the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) rightly said, that will be the exception rather than the rule, but it will exercise real discipline on the market.
Clause 2 deals with time limits and is more technical. I do not intend to spend much time on it because those technicalities can be dealt with in Committee. The Trade Descriptions Act is an excellent model.
I shall address the remainder of my remarks to the further measures which I know, from the Minister's comments, the Government are seriously considering, and which they may bring forward either as amendments or—I hope reasonably promptly—as alternative legislation. That has been covered in some detail by my hon. Friends, so I shall not repeat what they have said.
Attention has been drawn to the many measures sought by the Environmental Health Officers Association. In all such legislation there is a temptation to be over-elaborate. The best can be the enemy of the good. My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens) rightly said that we do not wish to hedge the small or large trader around with excessive detailed technicalities. Instead, we wish to give the enforcement authorities the opportunity to catch serious transgressors. That should be borne in mind.
At the same time we do not wish to kill or seriously damage the legitimate knacker trade for which—as my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) said—there is great need in country areas. He also rightly mentioned—in a House with so many urban hon. Members, this is sometimes forgotten—that we do not wish to damage the ancient system whereby farmers are assisted by local kennels. It is true that there are not as many hunts as there used to be, but there are still several hundred in Britain. In collecting dead carcases they perform an important role in country life. In seeking to get the Bill right for the meat trade, we do not want to hedge the whole thing round with elaborate and unnecessary requirements that will damage things that are not the principal or the proper objects of the Bill, or of any future legislation.
One of the points that must be seriously considered is the extension of the Bill to Scotland. I have been told by my senior environmental health officer that the movement of illicit meat to and from Scotland presents a real problem. I am not an expert, but Scotland does not have the same detailed requirements for the control of 1148 slaughterhouses and other such places as we have in England. It is believed that a significant amount of illicit meat comes from Scotland.
I shall mention one or two technicalities so that they can be considered within the context of the Bill. It has been said that the Bill's long title may not enable it to be extended to Scotland. I understand that Scotland already has higher penalties than England. However, although the Bill's general intention is wide enough to apply to Scotland, its geographical scope may prove an impediment unless the long title is amended. However, hon. Members more experienced than I will know that it is quite possible to amend the long title and that, provided that suitable notice is given on the Order Paper, the House can pass an instruction to extend the Bill to Scotland and to make any necessary amendments. In any consultations that my hon. Friend the Minister may have with the hon. Member for Tottenham, I hope that she will seriously consider adopting that course.
Key steps must be taken if the illicit meat trade is to be stifled without damaging the small businesses engaged in the provision of quick and, we hope, healthy food. The need for staining and sterilising such meat has been mentioned and that is an important development. It is important that the staining should go deep into the meat, whether by injection or by the inspector cutting the meat before staining, so that it penetrates. The profits that can be made by switching a carcase from the illicit to the supposedly lawful meat trade are so great that much of the outside of the meat could be trimmed if the staining did not go deep enough. I am glad that the Minister is thinking of introducing measures for staining and sterilisation.
One of the most important points is that packets of frozen meat should be clearly labelled and marked. In practice most of the unlawful trade involves slaughtering, butchering and cutting up the meat illicitly. The meat is then put in cartons or packs that are vacuum sealed and placed in boxes. The whole lot is then frozen. Once the meat has been trimmed, cut, vacuum sealed, boxed and frozen, it is astonishingly difficult to tell the difference between illicit or knacker meat and ordinary meat. It can be done by means of technical measures, but it is not widely done.
We wish to protect the 98 per cent. of the trade that is legitimate. If every box had to display its contents and where it had been packed, the ease with which such trade was carried on would immediately be greatly reduced. After all, the meat must be packed and boxed anyway.
The next step is notification of the movements of unfit meat. I am not sure whether that is an essential step, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider it carefully. If we notify the movement of every piece of unfit meat it may assist in overcoming the problem. However, we are dealing with the movement of meat that has already managed to pass itself off as fit. That is why labelling and packing are important.
Once the meat has made the criminal jump from the illicit trade to the licit trade, the fact that everyone in the lawful knacker and petfood trades have to say where they move every item will not, of itself, catch the unlawful meat which has already infiltrated the market. So I hope that this matter will be looked at, but with an open mind.
I have no doubt that the rights of pursuit by environmental health officers should be greatly widened. I do not believe that individuals would regard this as an excessive intrusion into their rights and liberties. After all, 1149 a policeman is perfectly entitled to make the sort of inquiry that environmental health officers can make. I do not suggest that the police are turning a blind eye to what is going on, but they are extremely busy people. It is quite ridiculous that an environmental health officer and the police are required to stop a lorry carrying illicit meat outside the environmental health officer's own patch. The opportunity for such officers to work outside their own patches is a matter of particular importance, and I hope that it will feature high on the priorities for changing legislation.
On a further comparatively detailed point, there is a case for a wider use of serum testing in the industry. It is not complicated or expensive to carry out serum tests of meat, and it is an effective way of finding out whether what one is dealing with is what one intends to deal with. I am glad to read that the major producers of manufactured meat are using this pratice more widely, but there may be a case for requiring its use. It is not particularly expensive, and it is the kind of practice that is becoming more common among first-class operators. We should consider whether it should be obligatory in certain circumstances.
I wish to mention a few general matters to show how widely this measure can affect the wrongs that are going on in this country. A matter which has been brought to my attention during the past year in my constituency is the danger that arises from the theft of animals. My constituency is Hemel Hempstead, which is not all that far from London. Nevertheless, there is some rustling of cattle and sheep, which is difficult to detect at night.
One hears not infrequently of the theft of horses and ponies. Those horses and ponies are stolen often because of the high price which their carcases can fetch in the illicit meat trade. Drawing on information in a speech that was made on an earlier occasion by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller), who has taken a close interest in the matter, and who I know would have been here today if his other commitments had not prevented him from doing so, a horse can be sold in Southall market to the illicit meat trade, just to be slaughtered, for £300. This stealing of horses and ponies is becoming all too common, because of the profits that can be made. If steps can be taken to tighten up on this illicit trade, it will have a beneficial effect in cutting down that kind of crime.
This has been a most important debate. It has concentrated the minds of the House and the country on what is, to my knowledge, the major problem affecting the food industry today. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tottenham for bringing forward the Bill, which I hope will have a swift and effective passage into law.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)
I shall, like other hon. Members, yield to the temptation to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson). In presenting his Bill half-way through a Parliament, he will no doubt be able to fill his election address in two and a half years' time with glowing tributes from hon. Members on both sides of the House. The hon. Gentleman has, however, made suitable use of his success in the private Member's ballot for Bills to bring forward a small alteration to the law to which other hon. Members can propose additions. To adopt that approach is probably 1150 better than trying to bring forward a 70-clause Bill that generates a great deal of opposition and normally the Government's displeasure.
I take a mixed view of the private Member's Bill procedure. Many hon. Members have had experience of speaking and working on Fridays to stop Bills from going through—
§ Mr. Bottomley
There is great pleasure to be derived from seeing a Bill on its way, knowing that it has not met opposition in the House. The hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) is right in saying that I have encouraged Bills forward. I have not, however for some years made a habit of speaking on Fridays.
§ Mr. Fraser
I was saying that the hon. Gentleman has encouraged Bills backwards rather than forwards.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I shall pass over that useful contribution from the hon. Gentleman.
The penalties in the Bill are important. This issue has been raised by the environmental health officer of the London borough of Greenwich, in which my constituency is situated. I shall not go into the technical detail that he has shared with me. The task has been adequately fulfilled by other hon. Members. The question that arises is whether there should be some procedure to enable the Government to review financial penalties on conviction of certain offences.
During my six of seven years in the House I have become involved in a number of issues where penalties were clearly out of date. I have served on a number of Committees—I hope that it will not be necessary for me to serve on the Committee considering this Bill—where such issues have arisen. Almost invariably the need for review has arisen not from dramatically changed circumstances but from changes in the value of money.
Whatever penalty Parliament decides, it is regrettable that the passage of time and the drop in the value of money should mean that penalties have to be regularly considered. It is for the House and the Government to decide whether this task should be undertaken by the Government or whether a quango should do it for them. It is wrong to allow the significance of penalties to reduce year by year.
It is even more important that the Bill, covering an area where there has been considerable growth in the volume of trade and increased illegal profits through substituting one product for another, or one description for another, should contain effective penalties. The difference between the maximum fine on summary conviction and the penalty on conviction or indictment covers, to some extent, the point that I have made.
The Bill helps to increase protection for the final customer who consumes the product and also for those involved in the retail trade on whom the final customer depends. I should not like the measure to be seen as an attack on the retail butcher, who, in my experience, does not become involved in significantly misleading customers. By its nature, the purchase of meat from a retail butcher, whether a personal family butcher or one of the large retail chains, relies on trust. That trust is built on experience. It would be difficult for a family butcher to get 1151 involved in any sort of deception. The problem is when the butcher is deceived at earlier stages in the distribution chain.
The Bill is also a reminder of what we take for granted. As we eat two or three times a day, we trust everyone involved in the whole distribution and production cycle—whether it be prepared or pre-packaged food or food that comes to us almost on the hoof. Perhaps I am slightly exaggerating, but I should be tempted, if this were a more general debate, to get involved in the issue of whether we eat too much meat.
When I came to the House I got on to a soya bean kick. Real soya bean meat is distinguishable from ordinary meat, because it takes 24 hours to cook. One cannot rely on that with many meat products and I became slightly less vegetarian.
The difficulty that the House faces on an issue such as this is the problem of expertise. We are not dealing with a subject that is familiar to most of our constituents. We rely on people such as environmental health officers and those involved in the meat trade. An encouraging sign in the debate is that so many hon. Members, on a nonpartisan issue, are fully briefed on the subject and the views advanced. That sort of co-operation makes it possible for the House to earn and deserve the respect of those whom it represents.
On occasions, hon. Members find it possible to speak with little knowledge of a subject. I shall not speak for long, because I was unable to be here at the beginning of the debate due to constituency business. However, I assured the people of Greenwich that I would speak in favour of the Bill and do my best to represent the interests of my constituents, who live in an urban or suburban area and rely not only on the protection of the law, but on the professionalism of butchers and those working for the local authority to ensure that the food that we buy and eat is up to a reasonable standard.
I pay tribute to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones). They advanced expert views and have clearly done a good deal of work. I say that not only because they are my hon. Friends, but because they managed to take seats from Labour in Hertfordshire. Their constituents have much to be grateful for, because they are represented by professional politicians. If I were not the last to speak in the debate, someone might be willing to say the same about me, but I shall rely on getting a Private Member's Bill during the next two years, before the next general election, to earn the sort of tributes that the hon. Member for Tottenham has been given by hon. Members.
In conclusion, I re-emphasise to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary the need to review penalties in a more general sense. The opportunities for hon. Members to introduce this sort of Bill are limited. Only eight or 10 hon. Members have a place in the ballot that makes it possible for them to present a Bill that is likely to be fully considered. If a significant number must be devoted to this sort of subject, the opportunities for private Members to introduce other reforms are clearly limited.
The Government should seriously consider reviewing purely financial penalties in a more general way. Clearly, they cut across nearly all Government Departments, but someone in the Government should consider a procedure to make the change proposed by the hon. Member for Tottenham less necessary. because most hon. Members 1152 have many other reforms that they would like to advance. I am grateful for the opportunity to support the Bill, and I wish it well.
§ Mrs. Fenner
By leave of the House, I should like to reply to a number of points made in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) and other hon. Members referred to illegal slaughtering. Under the Meat Inspection Regulations, which, like the Meat (Sterilisation) Regulations, are under review, meat may be sold for human consumption only if it comes from an animal slaughtered, officially inspected and passed as fit for human consumption.
The allegation that slaughtering may take place illegally outside the slaughterhouse is one reason why we have been examining the legislation on meat inspection. Essentially, the problem can be solved only by strict surveillance by the enforcement authorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West also mentioned kangaroo meat. The problems of Australian kangaroo meat being substituted for beef arose only in consignments to the United States. I am not aware of any wrongly described kangaroo meat coming to the United Kingdom. Problems here have been concerned with meat imported for pet food and diverted for human consumption, but there is no evidence that there have been more than isolated instances of that. Under the ideas that I spelt out earlier for revised regulations, unfit kangaroo meat would have to be stained before being distributed in the United Kingdom.
Several hon. Members expressed concern that all offences would be tried by jury. They were partly reassured by the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) who is well able to reassure us on legal matters. He pointed out that the Bill would not compel all offences to be tried on indictment. Offences will be triable either way.
The Food and Drugs Act 1955 contains many regulation-making powers and there are a number of sets of regulations under the various provisions of the Act. We have been dealing with regulations concerning unfit meat, but there are many dealing with the composition and labelling of food, with milk and with food hygiene.
If the Bill is passed it will be necessary for the Government in due course to review the penalties laid down in those regulations to decide whether they should be altered. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley). The Government already have that exercise in mind for when the Criminal Justice Bill comes into operation. My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West was in his constituency earlier and was not able to be present for my opening speech when I pointed out that one of the drafting defects of the Bill was that it did not provide for the uprating of penalties, which is sought in the Criminal Justice Bill.
We believe that offences against regulations are no less serious than offences against the Act, but when higher penalties are made available it may be desirable to differentiate between the seriousness of offences against regulations. One set of regulations for which it appears desirable to provide trial on indictment are the Meat (Sterilisation) Regulations. There may be other candidates and any such changes would be the subject of full consultation.
1153 There have been many suggestions for extending the Bill in Committee. They will be considered, but the Bill concerns primarily penalties, time limits and mode of trial. Several hon. Members have congratulated the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) on abiding by what I suspect is a good first rule for Private Members' Bills—keep it fairly brief. The Bill covers penalties, time limits and mode of trial, but a great deal can be done by subordinate legislation. That is why we are making proposals about meat sterilisation and inspection.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) said that he wanted the Bill to be extended in Committee to cover staining. That can be done in subordinate legislation. The Act already allows staining to be covered by regulations, and, as I have already pointed out, we are in consultation on the matter.
My hon. Friend mentioned records and horsemeat marketing. Again, that can be done by statutory instrument. All these points are covered by the Government's proposals, which have been circulated, for amending the regulations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) specifically referred to the Irish system of control whereby unfit meat cannot be used even for pet food. The Government are considering that system but we are not convinced that such a restriction would be justified. Provided that the controls on the movement of unfit meat are observed, we can see no problem with pet food manufacturers obtaining unfit meat. It is an essential source of raw material for our important pet food industry. Unfit meat and waste products from slaughterhouses have to be disposed of somehow, which is not always easy. For example, rendering plants can pose environmental problems, and pet food manufacturers and other processors play a vital part in safely disposing of unfit meat.
My hon. Friend suggested that it should be an offence to use meat stamps other than in slaughterhouses. We accept that there is a case for making the unauthorised possession of meat inspection stamps an offence, but that, too, can be done by secondary legislation. We are considering that change.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Lyell) raised a number of points. I trust that the proposals on the labelling of meat in boxes from slaughterhouses will reassure him. That aspect is covered in our proposals for more detailed documentation. If meat is fit it must be marked with the official stamp of the slaughterhouse.
My hon. and learned Friend referred to the document produced by the environmental health officers. We are still consulting interested organisations on the notification of movements but have not yet reached final conclusions. We do not envisage that the notification of movements would be particularly onerous. For example, we are considering that notification in the form of a summary, perhaps once a week, could be allowed.
My hon. and learned Friend also mentioned food poisoning. He said that it might be difficult to establish the source but that there seemed to be a proven trend. In 1977 there were 10, 306 reported cases and in 1980 11, 442. I shall not attempt to interpret the significance of the 1154 figures. There is no clear primary reason for certain fluctuations. The figures went up markedly in 1979 and down again in 1980.
One difficulty is that not everyone with an attack of food poisoning reports it to a doctor, and the statistics stem from the notifications made by doctors to the medical officer for environmental health when they have a patient whom they believe to be suffering from food poisoning. The primary purpose of notification is to alert the medical officer so that any investigative action that may be needed to contain an outbreak or to prevent its occurrence can be started immediately. Identification of the causative agent and the foodstuff by which it was transmitted, determining how the food became affected or contaminated and taking all the measures needed to deal with an outbreak can be complicated and difficult, especially if the food was widely distributed or included in a meal eaten by people from a wide area. I make those points to show how difficult it is to find a causative agent and why we should not make too much of the figures.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) also mentioned mince. I read with interest the article in The Times yesterday about a report on the composition of mince by the London Chief Environmental Health Officers Association. I have not had an opportunity to study it in detail, but I understand that it recommends legislation laying down a maximum fat content for mince.
Although no specific statutory controls exist over the fat content of mince, the product is covered by the general provisions of the Food and Drugs Act 1955. The food must be of the nature, substance and quality demanded by the purchaser. Trading standards authorities have endeavoured to establish in the courts a 25 per cent. maximum fat content. Attempts at regulation by means of a code of practice agreed by the trade, the retailer, the consumer and enforcement organisations have met with little success.
In general, the quality of mince can be judged by price and appearance, although I listened with concern to the remarks of the hon. Member for Tottenham. However, although the report is based on a relatively small number of samples taken in the London area, it casts doubt on the relationship.
The purchaser's choice will also be influenced by his satisfaction with previous purchases and the culinary use to which the product is to be put. Furthermore, there are regional variations in consumers' tastes. Some areas prefer a more fatty product than others. Strict compositional control over the amount of fat in mince would limit consumer choice in quality and price. Most butchers determine fat content by visual inspection, and may err on the side of caution to comply with the standard, so legislation might lead to price increases.
Those considerations have led us to conclude that, on balance, the existing controls under the Food and Drugs Act are adequate. High penalties should act as a deterrent to unscrupulous traders who set out deliberately to deceive the purchaser.
The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West asked why the Government did not review the Food and Drugs Act 1955. We are aware of the disappointment caused by the decision two years ago not to publish a consultative document following the interdepartmental review of the Act. We recognise that the food industry has undergone many changes in the past 27 years, but that does not automatically warrant fundamental changes in the law.
1155 After full consideration of the work done by officials, who were aided in their task by preliminary suggestions from organisations representing enforcement authorities, we concluded that major changes were not called for at that time. That is not to say that we ruled out all changes, but we did not believe that there was an overriding and immediate need for comprehensive changes. That remains our view for the rest of this Parliament. However, I trust that we have shown by our attitude and general support for the hon. Gentleman's Bill that we do not remain indifferent to situations that justly concern the public's confidence in the food that they eat.
The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West referred to the proposed meat products regulations. He will know that we have been consulting and following statutory consultations. Many aspects of the proposed meat products regulations, including the provision relating to the addition of water to fresh meat, are being reconsidered in the light of representations. I trust that that will reassure the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans), who arrived late, remained briefly and left prematurely, not having heard my original contribution, is not here now. He criticised the Government, not knowing about the reviews that are already being carried out. He then raised a matter about the Food Labelling Regulations 1980, made under the Food and Drugs Act 1955, for date marking of food. Date marking of food will be made compulsory for the first time. That is a major advance in consumer protection brought forward not in a Bill but in secondary legislation.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to intervention board policy on disposal of substandard meat—in other words, intervention meat coming on to the market. Occasionally the board must dispose of intervention beef which during storage has become substandard. The board has been involved only in the disposal of mould-affected beef that presented no health problems. Veterinary officers and local environmental health officers are consulted before such meat is sold. Any meat unfit for human consumption is destroyed.
The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West referred briefly to Spanish rape oil. I correct him. It should be Spanish olive oil. As it is an important matter, I should refer to it. The House will recall the reply of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security to a written question from the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Dr. Thomas) on 25 November. He asked whether steps had been taken to ban Spanish products 1156 containing olive oil. He was reassured that it was the Government's view that existing procedures were adequate to protect the public.
§ Mr. Archer
I was referring to a specific incident. The report that I read said that what had been contracted to be sold as olive oil was rape seed oil.
§ Mrs. Fenner
I apologise to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I shall not weary the House with an explanation of the olive oil situation. That is different as it is another product.
I am conscious that this morning we have spent a long time discussing unfit meat under the chairmanship of a well-known vegetarian who sits with impartiality. The sponsors of the Bill are to be congratulated. Having heard the speakers today, I realise that much work has been done to inform hon. Members about the background to the Bill and to ensure that it is clearly understood.
It is also clear from the debate—this bears out what my officials have found—that great efforts have been and are still being made to make the present legislation work. To make it work requires co-operation between the trade and the enforcement authorities and this co-operation is in many cases taking place. I was interested to learn that the right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West, who led from the Opposition Front Bench, is a vice-president of the Environmental Health Officers Association. I have served in local government for 15 years and I am not unacquainted with or unappreciative of the work that it has done in local government. I commend the efforts of the environmental health officers and the trade, particularly in this context.
§ Mr. Atkinson
Before the Question is put, I should like to clear up a point made by the Minister about my reference to the campaign to clean up the submerged tenth of the meat trade. Every experienced Member here will recognise that as a political expression. I used it as a descriptive phrase and I was not being arithmetically precise. I hope that that explains that.
I am sure that everyone will agree that the debate shows that this is an extremely important measure. I hope that the whole House will approve of it, and share the encouragement which the Minister has given me by her remarks.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).