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Volume 22: debated on Friday 23 April 1982

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I beg to move amendment No. 20, in line 1, leave out 'increasing the' and insert 'altering certain'.

With this, it will be convenient to take Goverment amendments Nos. 21 and 22.

Amendment No. 23 no longer makes sense following the withdrawal of new clauses 1 and 2. The purpose of the amendments is to alter the long title of the Bill to reflect its contents. The first amendment recognises that not all the alterations to penalties are increases. For example, imprisonment as a penalty for obstruction has been removed. The words "under that Act" should be removed because the Bill will enable penalties for offences against regulations to be altered and the offences to become triable either way.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 21, in line 2, leave out 'under that Act'.

No. 22, in line 3, leave out 'under that Act'.— [Mrs. Fenner.]

11.53 am

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

We have had a mixed morning of good work and I am grateful for what the Minister has done. She has now enabled further consultation to take place before we see the final formulation of some of the ideas to which she referred. Although the Bill started life as modest measure, it is now laced with much more serious matters and once it becomes law the cases to which we have referred may be triable either way.

Consumers can gain confidence from what we have done. I repeat that consumers are entitled to be guaranteed wholesome, clean food with absolute purity. The responsibility of the House is to ensure that our legal procedures are conscious of and take into account all the technological developments in recent years in the food industry. We have undertaken part of that process and we are on our way to solving some of the glaring anomalies that existed before this Bill.

I wish to place on record my appreciation of all those who have made the Bill possible and who supplied the advice that I and the House have received. I start by thanking as generously as I can the occupants of the Chair on Second Reading, in Committee and this morning. I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your assistance in enabling the matter to be dealt with so speedily this morning.

I pay tribute to the Consumers Association, which has put much work into the Bill and has lived with it for a long time. It, too, can gain some satisfaction from the work that it has done now that we have arrived at this stage in our proceedings. I thank also the environmental health officers, the Institute of Standards, meat inspectors and veterinary surgeons—all the professions that wished the changes that are now embodied in the Bill—who made a tremendous contribution.

My final job on Third Reading is to thank the Minister and other hon. Members on behalf of consumers. We represent their interests and I have great pride in thanking all those who have helped on behalf of consumers.

11.57 am

I wish to add my congratulations to those of the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson). I am grateful to him for permitting me to be a sponsor of a long overdue and much-needed Bill. I am also grateful for the Minister's response. She has been most helpful both in Committee and on the Floor of the House. The hon. Member for Tottenham will agree when I say that this is an important step but only one in a progress that must be made in the fight for food hygiene in all its forms. This is a series of sizeable steps but much remains to be done.

My interest in this matter stems from some disgraceful cases in my constituency and in Leicester, where profiteers have been handling meat unfit for human consumption most irresponsibly. That is why I welcome what the hon. Gentleman has done to tighten up the penalties and to make those who are prepared to break the law pay just a little more towards the cost of their escapades.

As I said, much more should be done. Progress must be made in Scotland. Meat staining regulations should be introduced as soon as possible. All that relates to food hygiene in all its forms.

I, too, have been lucky to get up-to-date information from environmental health officers, mainly in Leicestershire. We have excellent officers on the Harborough district council and the Oadby and Wigston borough council. They have kept me right up to date until today. I thank them for their support and drive. They have given us all apt and essential advice. They have helped with expert opinion on Second Reading and in Committee. Without them, the Bill would not have been as effective as it is.

12 noon

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) on getting his Bill this far. I wish it well. I thank the Minister for her courtesy, particularly this morning.

I press upon the hon. Lady the urgency of the meat regulations. Welcome though it is, the Bill will be much more effective when regulations are introduced in line with available technology. Crushed bones and so on now used in manufactured meat were beyond the imagination of manufacturers when the original regulations were envisaged. I urge the Minister to expedite the introduction of meat regulations, after proper consultation, to go hand in hand with the Bill.

12.1 pm

I join the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) in pointing out the need to update legislation not only in line with the advance in technology. I refer also to the progress made in flash freezing, particularly of meat, which gave rise to the issue in the first place. Meat is now a bulk commodity, traded in rectangular anonymous cardboard boxes. It can remain for months, or indeed years, in cold store, and there is grave difficulty in discovering the contents until they are unfrozen and prepared for further manufacture.

It is also necessary to update legislation on penalties in line with inflation. It is one year and 20 days since I had an Adjournment debate on a Friday on the subject of unfit meat. My interest originally arose from an episode in my constituency. The same is true of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Fan) and many others associated with the Bill. The investigations to trace the consignments of unfit meat stretched far and wide throughout the country and abroad. They made it plain that the penalties bear no relation to the profit. The Act provided inadequate protection for the public.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) for his courtesy in inviting me to become a sponsor of the Bill. The Bill is a necessary and valuable step. We envy the hon. Gentleman's good fortune in the ballot and congratulate him on the manner in which he has taken the Bill through all its stages. We share his hope that it will swiftly be enacted.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for her constant encouragement of the measure. I hope that she will not be disappointed over the withdrawal of the first two new clauses or feel that there was anything personal in our remarks. We greatly appreciate all that she has done and is doing for consumers. It may be impertinent of me to say so, but I believe that her stature has been increased by her generosity in agreeing to withdraw the first two new clauses. They may later be found to be necessary, but she readily and willingly understood the need for further examination and consultation. Her acceptance of that should not be considered a defeat of her proposal. She has been a strong and keen supporter of the Bill, for which we are most grateful.

The Bill is not the answer to all the problems of the trade in unfit meat. As the hon. Member for Durham said, we are looking anxiously to the regulations. I press my hon. Friend again to say whether it is possible for her to report on the progress being made on the consultative document issued in Scotland because of the loopholes and also the loophole in the Irish trade through the traditional Irish ports. The loopholes cause great anxiety and were the channel of much of the traffic in unfit meat. They afforded the opportunity for the undoubted rackets which were a great danger to public health. It is our duty to prevent them.

It is not just a question of the meat regulations under this Act. We shall have to look to my hon. Friend for further action. All the loopholes have not been closed by the legislation. There is the question of the powers needed to seize horsemeat. The public would be surprised to know the quantity of horsemeat that finds its way into various Products. Without those powers and the need to distinguish between fit and unfit horsemeat, there are further dangers to the public.

Similarly, we shall have to look for compulsory separation——

Order. The hon. Gentleman should confine his remarks to what is in the Bill

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had hoped that we could have included in the Bill at an earlier stage the separation of slaughterhouses and knackers' premises, which was another potential source of difficulty, but we have made great progress today under your guidance, Sir.

I am pleased with everything that has been achieved. I am most grateful to my local councillors, environmental health officers, their associations in London, the Fatstock Marketing Corporation and the press. The press has had a great deal to do with uncovering the trade. That presented difficulties for the environmental health officers because of the restrictions on their activities to which I referred.

I am optimistic that we are making progress, but I assure my hon. Friend that there will be pressure for further progress.

12.9 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) and the sponsors. It always seems a miracle when one reaches the important stage of Third Reading of a Private Member's Bill. I wish the Bill well in another place. I am glad, too, that throughout its progress the Bill has had the warm support of the Minister, who has been enthusiastic and extremely helpful.

Before the Bill departs, I should stress its value to producers as well as to consumers. It contains much that will strengthen the hand of those who wish to produce quality agricultural produce which will pass all the examinations required by the legislation. That is a great step forward in helping farming. The more high quality produce that we can sell under this legislation, the better. There is no doubt that housewives will come back for more if the quality is there, and the aim of the Bill is to ensure the provision of high quality food for consumption in this country.

Of course, we are all concerned not only about the consumption of horsemeat but, more seriously, about the slaughter of New Forest ponies and others which could be used far more valuably for riding than for eating.

I am glad, too, that we have concentrated on slaughterhouses. I believe that in this and past legislation, standards have constantly risen, and the environmental health officers have done especially good work. This has been most necessary in the context of the high requirements in slaughterhouses for exports to Europe.

Finally, as I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will say a few words, I wish to ask whether any progress has been made in relation to Scotland. On 29 January, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland welcomed the provisions of the Bill and said that in Scotland
"any necessary measures will be taken as soon as possible."— [Official Report, 29 January 1982; Vol. 16, c. 1133.]
I do not know whether that is to be done solely by guidelines or a statutory instrument or whether we must wait another year for a further Private Member's Bill. All in all, however, I hope that some of the achievements of the Bill to improve the quality of food will at least rub off on operations in Scottish slaughterhouses and will activate the Scottish Office to speedy implementation of Scottish legislation if it is required.

I wish the Bill well in another place and I hope that its time there will be brief.

12.13 pm

I wish first to answer the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller) and for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro).

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries asked about Scotland. It is proposed in Scotland to have new staining and sterilisation regulations on similar lines to those for England and Wales. As my hon. Friend pointed out, Scotland starts further back, as at present there are no regulations at all on meat sterilisation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch was concerned about powers to seize horsemeat. If horsemeat is suspected of being unfit for human consumption, it may be seized by an authorised officer. I should add that there is nothing wrong with selling horsemeat for human comsumption, provided that it is not unfit and that it is labelled as horsemeat.

The Government's support for the Bill, as will by now have become clear from what I said on Second Reading and in Committee, springs from a determined resolve that penalties under the Food and Drugs Act 1955 must provide an effective deterrent to anyone who might be tempted to engage in illegal trade in unfit meat.

It is difficult to assess with any accuracy the extent of this unlawful trade. However, it is obviously vital to public health that all meat sold for human consumption should be wholesome and fit to eat. The public must have confidence that this is so. It is important also that the majority of meat traders and producers, who maintain a high standard in their business affairs and abide by the law, should not be discredited by the illegal acts of an unscrupulous minority. The Bill will bring it home to that minority that their malpractices will yield no profits.

The Bill makes it possible for the first time to take the more serious offences to the Crown courts, where heavier penalties can be imposed. It increases the penalty on summary conviction and provides enforcement officers with more time to prepare difficult cases by extending the time limits for bringing prosecutions.

Although the offence of selling unfit meat is at the core of the Bill, we are also concerned with all offences created by the principal Act. For instance, it is an offence to sell for human consumption any food to which substances have been added or from which substances have been abstracted or which has been processed so as to render it injurious to health, and to sell food intended, but unfit, for human consumption. It is also an offence to sell to the prejudice of the purchaser food which is not of the nature, substance or quality demanded, or to make a false description calculated to mislead as to the food's nature, substance or quality. This is why we must keep all offences under the Act in perspective. In co-operating with the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson), the Government have recommended certain amendments to help the Bill to achieve its purpose but at the same time to maintain that balance in the overall objectives of the Act.

I should now like to look at the changes that the Bill makes to the existing law. Section 106 of the Act deals with the penalties prescribed for the main offences in the Act, and these are all triable summarily only. I say "the main offences" because the Act also creates a number of offences outside the scope of section 106 for which special penalties are prescribed. Clause 1 of the Bill replaces section 106. The new section provides for the mode of trial of offences and also for their penalties. Offences will be triable either on indictment or summarily.

I should perhaps explain at this point, as this caused some concern on Second Reading, that this does not mean that all offences will be tried on indictment. I imagine that the proportion will be small. However, the magistrates courts will decide on the appropriate mode of trial for any particular offence, subject of course to the right of a defendant to opt for jury trial.

By revoking section 106, clause 1 also abolishes penalties for continuing offences. It is believed that these penalties are not used. They have been found to be unsuitable by the courts for offences other than those of omission where there is little difficulty in establishing that the offence continued throughout the period in question rather than being repeated from time to time. Section 106 offences are largely offences of commission, for which repeated prosecution is more suitable.

The custodial penalty on summary conviction will be removed, and the alternative penalty of a fine not exceeding £100 will be replaced by a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum. The statutory maximum, as is shown by definition later in the Bill, is now fixed by section 32(9) of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980 at £1,000. Furthermore, section 143 of that Act allows the statutory maximum to be varied by order to take account of changes in the value of money. Thus, in future those penalties will be inflation-proofed, whereas previously they were not. A person convicted on indictment would be liable to an unlimited fine or imprisonment or both. It should be stressed that the penalties and modes of trial in the Bill will not apply to offences committed before the legislation comes into force, regardless of the date of commencement of proceedings or trial or the date of conviction or sentence in relation to such offences.

Clause 2 creates a new section 106A in the Act, which sets out the offences which are to remain triable only summarily. They include, with one exception which is triable either way, the offences that I mentioned a moment ago, for which the Act provides special penalties. They also include offences under byelaws made under the Act, and offences under an order made under section 5 of the Act which confers on Ministers powers to obtain particulars of certain food ingredients.

Also included in this category are offences under regulations made under the Act other than those which will be made triable either way by the regulations themselves. It is the Government's view that this group of offences should be triable summarily only. The special offence which is an exception to this group is an offence under section 5(3). This relates to the unlawful disclosure of information provided in compliance with a section 5 order. This is triable either way.

We want to create effective safeguards to prevent the sale of unfit meat. This is the prime objective of the Bill. An essential part of these safeguards must be the conditions which would allow the careful preparation of a prosecution by an enforcement authority to achieve a conviction. Serious and difficult cases will take longer than the mainstream cases to prepare. This would be particularly so when the consignment of unfit meat had travelled some distance and moved across the boundaries of several authorities. Clause 3 lays down new time limits for instituting proceedings for offences under the Act.

Offences which remain triable summarily only will continue to be subject to the time limits prescribed in the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980. The Bill lays down a time limit of three years from the commission of the offence or one year from its discovery, for offences triable either way. There are special time limits in the Act for instituting proceedings for offences where the prosecutor has procured a sample.

Clause 4 provides for modes of trial and penalties in regard to offences under regulations made under the Act. At present, offences under regulations are triable summarily only. It would be anomalous if it were not possible to align them with the modes of trial of offences under the Act itself. We propose to review them in consultation with interested parties to decide the appropriate mode of trial and penalty that should apply to offences under each set of regulations. Clause 4 provides the framework for this review, and the maximum penalties that may be imposed.

The clause provides that offences may be made triable either way. On summary conviction a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or such lesser amount as the regulations may specify may be imposed. The penalty on conviction on indictment could be either a fine not exceeding an amount specified in the regulations or an indefinite amount, or a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years or such shorter term as the regulations may specify, or both the fine and the imprisonment penalty.

Clause 2 already provides that offences under regulations which are not triable either way shall be triable summarily only. Clause 4 further provides that the penalty for those summary offences would be a fine not exceeding £1,000 or such lesser sum as the regulations may specify. These clause 4 provisions will replace section 123(1)(e) of the Act.

I mentioned earlier that, by substituting a new section for section 106 of the Act, the Bill abolishes the imprisonment penalty on summary conviction and also the penalties for continuing offences. Clause 5 makes a similar change in relation to summary conviction of offences under regulations made under the Act. The clause does not, however, prohibit the institution in existing regulations of a penalty of imprisonment for either-way offences when tried on indictment.

The first thing I think I should make clear about clause 7, as I believe I have done in Committee, is that the Government would not wish any provision of this Bill to be retrospective. We are satisfied that clause 7, as amended on Report, makes it clear that the new modes of trial, penalties and time limits would not operate so as to affect any person who committed an offence before the Bill comes into force. The existing modes of trial, penalties and time limits will apply to offences committed before the commencement of the Bill, irrespective of the date of commencement of proceedings for such an offence, or date of conviction or sentence. This principle applies to offences under the Act as well as to offences under regulations made under the Act.

We are nevertheless concerned to see that no anomalies arise. If the whole of the Bill comes into force at one and the same time, there will be an anomaly. Offences against regulations under the Act committed after the Bill becomes law but before the regulations could be amended under the new powers would have been subject to lower maximum penalties than at present. During that period, offences against the existing regulations would have continued to be triable summarily. The maximum fine would still have been only £100.

At the same time, because of clause 5, the punishment of a term of imprisonment would not have been available. The Government do not consider it desirable that provisions for imprisonment should be removed from regulations before the pecuniary punishment has been increased, or before offences against the regulations are made triable either way, in cases where that option is to be exercised. That is why an amendment was made to clause 7 on Report to bring clauses 4 and 6 into force on 1 November 1982, ahead of the remainder of the Bill. By doing so it allows regulations to be made under the new powers, to come into operation on the same day as the rest of the Bill, thus avoiding the anomaly to which I refereed earlier.

Although most of the Bill appears to extend to Northern Ireland, that is only for the purpose of schedule 10 to the Act. The amendments made by the Bill are all amendments to the Food and Drugs Act 1955, which extends to England and Wales only, apart from schedule 10, which confers power on Ministers to make subordinate legislation for Northern Ireland relating to importation. Various provisions of the Act are applied to Northern Ireland by schedule 10 for the purposes of such subordinate legislation and it is desirable that, for those limited purposes, the amendments made by the Bill should extend to Northern Ireland. With that limited exception, the Bill extends only to England and Wales.

The Government understand the concern of those who believe that measures should be taken to ensure that operations will not be set up in Northern Ireland or Scotland to bypass regulations in England and Wales. If that were so, it would defeat the whole objective of the Bill. In Committee I assured the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had indicated that changes in the legislation for Northern Ireland would be achieved in the criminal justice order. to do exactly what we in England and Wales are doing by the Bill. It may be necessary now because of the increased size of the Bill, for this to be done by separate Order in Council, but it will be done.

Also in Committee, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for Scotland explained that the Bill brought the law in England and Wales into line with the law in Scotland on the main point of principle, which is penalties.

The Bill, although of great importance in itself, accepts and presupposes that there is at present a system that controls the sale of unfit meat and is intended to stiffen the penalties where those controls are breached. On Second Reading I gave an outline of these legislative controls and said how we proposed to strengthen them. With the indulgence of the House, I should like just to go over briefly the measures that we propose to take, since that will help to put the objectives of this Bill into perspective. Proposals will be issued as soon as possible for amendments to the Meat (Sterilisation) Regulations 1969. The objective is to have these laid before Parliament before the Summer Recess, although there may then be a short period before the new regulations come into force to enable the trade and enforcement authorities to accustom themselves to the new requirements.

The proposals will be designed to strike a balance between the desire of the enforcement authorities for stricter controls on the treatment and disposal of unfit meat, and the need to avoid placing unnecessary constraints on the trade, which could themselves act as an incentive to evade the law and disrupt legitimate operations. The proposals are expected to cover the staining of unfit and knacker meat in specified circumstances and stricter controls on the movement, documentation and storage of such meat. These measures, with the provisions of the Bill, should make it considerably more difficult for the unscrupulous trader to evade the law.

Is it clear that my hon. Friend will be able to have her new regulations on the control of meat products before we rise for the Summer Recess so that we may have the opportunity to read and consider them? They are important matters for the protection of the consumer. If my hon. Friend can introduce them before the recess, there will be an opportunity to consider them before the Bill comes into effect next January. It will be valuable to have the assurance that the House will be able to consider the regulations before the recess.

It is my earnest objective to have the regulations laid before the House before the Summer Recess.

I look forward to the successful passage of the Bill and I invite the House to give it a Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.