§ Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)
(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the contamination of baby food.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)
It is difficult to imagine the twisted minds that could mount such a vicious attack on defenceless babies.
Of 17 incidents of baby food being reported as contaminatd since 7 April and 11 more reported today, a number have been recognised as examples of deliberate contamination and are the subject of police inquiries co-ordinated by the Metropolitan police. In some cases there have been blackmail demands. It would not be helpful for police investigations if I were to go into greater detail, as I am sure that the House will readily understand.
Wherever such incidents have been reported, immediate steps have been taken by the police, the manufacturers and the retailers to remove products of the kind that have been found to be contaminated from the stores concerned and to warn the public of the risk. The police are giving these investigations the highest priority. Parents and others looking after babies should in the meantime exercise the greatest care in checking both the seals of baby food containers and their contents before feeding children.
§ Mr. Sheerman
The Opposition share the deep concern felt by the public in general and the parents of young children and particularly of small infants about this horrible campaign which attacks the most vulnerable members of society. The Oppositon want to know whether the Government understand that this is a co-ordinated attack on the food of a vulnerable part of our society and whether the police are taking sufficiently energetic steps to bring the culprits to justice. We need to know in the House whether the reports in the press that this is a very highly sophisticated criminal activity, perhaps of a Mafia style of operation, are true, or if it is, one, off operation. Do the police know whether that is the case?
The House will wish to know whether the powers under the Food Act 1984 are sufficient to allow local authorities to step in and help the police to protect the public from contaminated food. We do not want the inquirers to be embarrassed, but there have been disturbing reports this morning that large sums of money have already been paid to such blackmailers. I hope that the Minister can reassure us both on that point and also that the police and local authorities are protecting young children from contaminated food.
§ Mr. Patten
First, I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his words of support for what the police and others are doing, and for his words of condemnation, on behalf of the official Opposition, for these foul and despicable attacks, which are of a most cowardly nature and against the vulnerable in our society. I am sure that the whole House is united in that condemnation.
Secondly, I assure the hon. Gentleman and the official Opposition that the police are, and have been, doing everything possible to investigate these serious threats to individual safety. Thirdly, I and the Government are convinced that the powers available under the Food Act 952 1984 are adequate to enable local authorities to assist the police and public safety by ensuring that food sold in shops is fit to eat.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the House will understand that I cannot respond in detail to the specific questions that he asked about operational matters. The Government are determined to resist all attempts at consumer terrorism in this country.
§ Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)
I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. I understand that Mrs. Laura Russell, when feeding her six-month-old baby, Chantelle, in Newport on the Isle of Wight on Saturday, discovered a sliver of glass in a jar of Heinz chocolate dessert. The baby was subsequently examined at the Royal County hospital on the Isle of Wight and, mercifully, found to be unharmed. Those events took place on Saturday, but only came to light yesterday. There seems to be a conspiracy of silence over the matter. I understand that, even as I speak, similar products are still on the shelves in the same stores, and available to the public.
§ Mr. Patten
There is no conspiracy of silence. This afternoon I have given the House and my hon. Friend the full facts as I and the Home Office know them. May I express my horror at the unfortunate assault—for that is what it is—on the child in my hon. Friend's constituency. I am extremely glad that the child suffered no ill effects. No baby or young child has suffered serious injury from contaminated food, thanks to the vigilance of parents.
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
May I, from my side of the argument, support the Government's attempts to resist consumer terrorism? They are entirely right to do so. I hope that the police make speedy progress in bringing the criminals to book so that they get their just desserts in the courts. If this is a long-term problem and the inquiry takes weeks, if not longer, will the Minister look again at the Food Act 1984 to find out whether the Government have powers to encourage local authorities to insist that this small range of baby foods—it is not a vast range of products—are sold with attended across-the-counter service, as opposed to unattended supermarket service? In that way, we can try to give the public some confidence that such events will not happen again.
§ Mr. Patten
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for our stalwart attempts to ensure that this country never gives in to consumer terrorism and the hijacking of food shops and stores up and down the land, which would have a destabilising effect. The Government are determined in all circumstances to resist that. The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting suggestion about the workings of the Food Act. We are convinced that the Act contains adequate powers for local authorities, environmental health officers and others to investigate any suggestion of food being unfit. I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's interesting suggestion to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
§ Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)
Does not my hon. Friend agree that these are crimes of magnitude and should not be trivialised in any way? Will he confirm that, if a baby were to die during this present epidemic of pollution of cans and jars, the police would treat such an event as murder, and that the provisions of the courts would be correspondingly increased?
953 May I make two useful suggestions? First, food of this type should be displayed in a prominent part of supermarkets under the eyes and ears of those who work at the cash registers and in the reception areas. That will mean that people cannot sneak behind the display counters and do their work.
Secondly, warning notices should immediately be placed in all supermarkets that deal with these types of food telling people to be vigilant and saying that those tampering with products should be reported to the management as soon as they are spotted. Such signs would increase the vigilance of customers and staff in all these supermarkets.
§ Mr. Patten
My hon. Friend is right to say that the charges that could be laid by the police—it would be their decision—could range from assault up to attempted murder, punishable by life imprisonment. The most severe penalties are available to the courts, should such charges he laid. I am sure that the food manufacturing industry, which has an excellent record of health, safety and hygiene in manufacturing baby foods in this country over many years, will have listened carefully to all the advice given to it.
There is no evidence of any of these foodstuffs being contaminated during the manufacturing process—hence, what my hon. Friend has said is right. It is up to retailers and others to exercise maximum vigilance in the stores where these foodstuffs are sold. I am sure that they will listen as carefully to my hon. Friend as I did when he gave excellent advice on the radio this morning.
§ Ms. Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East)
Although I appreciate that it may be difficult to divulge a great deal of information at this stage, since different brands of food and different types of containers have been found to be affected in different parts of the country, will the Minister assure us that he will consider providing the maximum possible information in the circumstances to consumers, who are very worried about the problem?
§ Mr. Patten
We will certainly make available to consumers all the information that we have. I have given all the facts this afternoon. A range of products made by two manufacturers have been affected.
§ Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)
I welcome very much what my hon. Friend has said. I am sure that all sane people will agree that we must never give way to such blackmailing campaigns.
My constituent, Mrs. Murphy, is quite convinced that the seal on the pineapple dessert that she bought had not been tampered with. We need to allay the fears of those who believe that the production process, as well as the opportunities that arise for contamination on the shelves, should be thoroughly investigated. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that, too.
§ Mr. Patten
I thank my hon. Friend for the first part of his remarks, and I pass on my sorrow, through him, to his constituent for her experience. I am extremely glad that the child is safe and well.
I do not want to go into details of police investigations, but I can tell my hon. Friend that, on the information given to me as late as this afternoon, the police have no evidence of contamination during the manufacturing process, and considerable evidence of contamination at a later stage.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
We welcome the Minister's statement and assure him of our support for his stand against consumer terrorism in Northern Ireland, where shops have been affected.
Can the Minister shed any light on the allegations that considerable sums have already been paid out for blackmail? Have funds been supplied through insurance companies such as Risk Control to allow firms to deal with such matters? Surely that, in itself, will encourage such campaigns?
§ Mr. Patten
I know that the hon. Gentleman, with his long experience in his constituency and in the Province, with its troubled recent past, will appreciate that it is sometimes less than helpful not only to give information about police investigations, but even to speculate about them. I hope that he will foregive me if I do not answer his question more fully than that on this occasion.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support, and I thank the whole House for its determination to ensure that the country never gives in to consumer terrorism.
§ Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)
It is right that my hon. Friend should play no part in spreading alarmist fears, but, with respect, does he agree that his statement should have gone a great deal further in showing the risks to parents and consumers? In particular, as most of the incidents appear to have taken place in the south-east and, to a lesser extent, in the midlands, is this a regional problem? Is it isolated to certain types of food? What should people be looking out for in jars and cans and what measures can they take—for example sieving their contents—to prevent any risk to their children?
§ Mr. Patten
I welcome my hon. Friend's question and the opportunity that it gives to provide the information that he thinks would be helpful. First, the incidents are far from restricted to the south-east. They have occurred in the north-west, Cheshire and possibly Lancashire. Secondly, I can give a complete list of the forms of contamination which my lion. Friend might find of interest, as would parents. Contamination has included the insertion of glass splinters, pins, broken razor blades and, on one occasion, caustic soda.
The advice that I gave the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) is good advice: parents should take the greatest possible care to check the seals of containers. Thereafter, they should take the greatest possible care to check the foodstuff before it is served to their child or children, and that includes looking at and smelling the substance to make sure that it is pure.
§ Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan)
Is the Minister aware that I agree with everything that he has said about this appalling state of affairs, and that I am grateful for what he said earlier—that there is no evidence of the source of the contamination being the factory but that contamination takes place beyond that, either in the shop, in transit, or wherever? I am sure that what he has said this afternoon will be welcomed by many thousands of my constituents who work in Heinz's factory in Wigan.
§ Mr. Patten
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Firms such as Heinz and Cow and Gate have an excellent record, recognised worldwide, in food hygiene and safety. I can only repeat that the police have no evidence of contamination during the production process.
§ Mrs. Maureen Hicks (Wolverhampton, North-East)
Is it not hard for the House to comprehend that sick people in our society, for the sake of a cause, would risk subjecting innocent babies to lethal injury? Thank God that there has been no real tragedy to date. Will the Government monitor the situation carefully and reassure those anxious mothers who now fear buying any baby foods that every possible action will be taken on their behalf?
§ Mr. Patten
I can assure my hon. Friend that—most importantly of all—the police, the Home Office, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is present—and the Department of Health are doing everything possible to ensure that all avenues are included.
§ Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)
Is the Minister entirely satisfied that the seals to which he referred during the exchanges are in all cases adequate? It would seem that we need urgently to consider the sealing of such products so that customers can be entirely confident that the products have not been tampered with.
§ Mr. Patten
I cannot give a straight answer to that question because I have not examined all the seals, nor do I, alas, have exact evidence of the different sorts of seals used. I do know that the police are convinced that, under most circumstances, the seals woud have had to be broken to admit the contaminated objects, liquid or substance. In the meantime, it is important for parents and those who care for children to be as vigilant as possible.