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Malicious Contamination Or Alleged Malicious Contamination Of Food

Volume 78: debated on Thursday 2 May 1985

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

  • '(1) A person shall be guilty of an offence;
  • (a) If he without lawful excuse damages or otherwise contaminates an item of food by the addition of a substance whether or not the substance so added is harmful; or
  • (b) If he communicates any information which he knows or believes to be false to another person with the intention of inducing in him or any other person a false belief that an item of food has been contaminated, by the addition of a substance whether or not the substance which is believed to have been added is harmful.
  • (2) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) shall be liable—
  • (a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum as defined in section 74(2) of the Criminal Justice Act 1983, or both; or
  • (b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or to a fine, or both.'.—[Mr. Shersby.]
  • Brought up, and read the First time.

    I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

    I ask for the indulgence of Scottish Members for intervening on a Scottish Bill, but the matter that I wish to raise can only be considered in a Bill which involves the reform of the law. As there is no criminal justice legislation during this Session, I have taken this opportunity to table the new clause.

    The substance of my new clause is as important to Scotland as it is to the rest of the United Kingdom. I declare an interest, in as much as I am a member of the Food and Drink Federation and of other bodies listed in the Register of Members' interests.

    The purpose of the new clause is to make the malicious contamination, or alleged malicious contamination, of food an offence punishable by a substantial fine of up to £1,000 or by a term of imprisonment, or both.

    Why is that necessary? The House will no doubt recall a recent case when a national newspaper was contacted by a group of people who were seeking to publicise their cause by attempting to inflict damage on a well-known firm of food manufacturers. The group claimed that it had placed a contaminated food product on the shelves of retail outlets in five cities in the United Kingdom. In fact, I understand that a note was placed in the product stating that it had been contaminated and that there was also a note on the exterior of the wrapping to the effect that the product was contaminated. The clear message was that the product was unfit for human consumption and could cause serious illness or worse.

    The product sent to the newspaper had indeed been tampered with, but—this is the important point—no other examples of the product found on the shelves of shops throughout the United Kingdom had been tampered with. They did not contain any toxic substance, as had been alleged by the group concerned.

    The items sent to the newspaper for publicity purposes had been subject to malicious contamination, but for thousands or millions of packs of the product on the shelves of shops throughout the United Kingdom and intended for human consumption the threat was no more than a hoax. For the manufacturer and the consumer, the hoax was serious and dangerous. It caused great anxiety in the minds of the public, even though the claims that the product had been tampered with were false.

    While that anxiety was being caused, the perpetrators of the hoax appeared on television, broadcast on the radio and gave stories to the newspapers to publicise their cause. The spokesman for the group simply said that his group had tampered with a nationally known product. He did not speak as the person who had actually tampered with the product, and no charge was preferred, presumably because it was believed that no offence had been committed in England by that person.

    Such a malicious hoax, causing great public anxiety, is a very serious matter for any food manufacturer or retailer. It is somewhat akin to the type of bomb hoax that was made an offence by the Criminal Law Act 1977. To indulge in such a hoax is to make use, or to seek to make use, of the nation's food supply chain as a weapon to advance a point of view or to seek some change in commercial policy. The problem is causing great concern to the Food and Drink Federation, to the food companies that belong to the Food Manufacturers Federation, and to the consumer. I believe that the time has come for Parliament to make it clear that the malicious contamination of food, or its alleged malicious contamination, is an offence that should be punishable by the full rigour of the law in the form of a substantial fine or a term of imprisonment, or both.

    In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the law appears to be inadequate to prevent such highly undesirable and dangerous activities. The law in Scotland may be different. I hope that the House will be informed on that point when my hon. Friend replies to the debate. I hope that he will consider the matter carefully and be disposed to welcome the new clause. Perhaps Scotland, which has a fine reputation for clear and sensible laws, will be the first country in the United Kingdom to clamp down on this objectionable and dangerous activity, which can have, and has had, such serious effects on several sectors of our community.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) has a great deal of knowledge of the industry concerned. However, I probably represent more confectionery companies and employees than any other hon. Member. As a Sassenach, and not wearing my kilt I hesitate to speak in such a debate, but my electors sell their beautiful product north of the border and I therefore think it right to make some brief comments.

    From time to time anarchists appear in our midst, who cannot obtain support at the ballot box for their extreme views and, therefore resort to extremist means. I hope that my hon. Friend will take note of the views expressed by the confectionery trade, which seeks to produce good quality products which are not only enjoyed throughout the United Kingdom but contribute richly to our exports. It is not right that their products should be damaged by hoax calls and similar activities. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will look kindly on the amendment.

    I apologise to the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) for not having been present to hear his opening comments.

    The Opposition deprecate the actions of those who resort to such tactics. In the case of the Mars bars there was no infection, but the fact that the group concerned announced that it had done such a thing caused widespread fear and alarm. The Opposition want no truck with such behaviour. We have our views on the protection of animals, on field sports and on other issues. All such issues should be discussed in the political forum. However, in no circumstances will we condone or tolerate actions of this kind.

    As I expect the Minister will explain to his hon. Friend, in the case of Scotland, the announcement by the group that it had injected the Mars bars with poison—although it had not in fact done so—caused the police to investigate the complaint. There is in Scotland an offence of wasting police time. If the perpetrators of that act had been discovered, they would have been charged with wasting police time. As always, Scots law—I do not intend to denigrate the English law, and I could not do so in your presence, Mr. Deputy Speaker—has certain advantages over the English legal system. Surprise, surprise—our High Court has the power to invent offences. The Solicitor-General looks surprised at that revelation. In the case of Malik v. Her Majesty's Advocate, when the selling of glue-sniffing kits was not an offence, the High Court invented the offence and Malik was convicted.

    I hope that, if the police catch the perpetrators of the offences which we are discussing, they will be charged with wasting police time, or, if not, that the High Court will consider its ability to invent an offence. Having said that, I do not want to prejudge any case. I should not be answering for the Minister and be suspected of reading his brief, but I am sure that Scots law can deal with the problem to which the hon. Member for Uxbridge has rightly drawn our attention.

    The Opposition strongly deprecate the actions of those who were involved in the scare which resulted in announcements about Mars bars and, latterly, turkeys and other produce. I commend the hon. Member for Uxbridge on presenting his new clause, but Scotland should be able to deal with such matters.

    9 pm

    I have listened with care to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby), who was kind enough to give me advance warning of his intentions. I also listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory), who has some interest in the confectionery industry. Some of the rest of us are trying to curtail our intake of confectionery to limit our waistlines. I also listened with interest to the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing).

    The behaviour that we are discussing is to be condemned without reservation. It is deplorable, especially with products that are eaten mainly by children. Parents must be greatly alarmed if they think that their children's sweets might have been tampered with and therefore endanger their health. I am sure that the whole House condemns those tactics without reservation.

    I can speak only for Scotland. Matters might be different south of the border. I do not think that we need the new clause, as the behaviour that we are discussing is adequately covered by the common law. We would not wish to contemplate legislative change unless we were satisfied that the common law was inadequate. Much depends on the circumstances of a case, but, bearing that in mind, common law charges which might be brought include extortion, breach of the peace—one of the essential elements of which is the causing of fear and alarm to the public—malicious mischief and, as the hon.. Member for Falkirk, East said, the wasting of police time.

    I am satisfied that existing law in Scotland is sufficient to ensure the prosecution of people who commit these crimes. If such crimes are prosecuted at common law, the maximum penalty can be substantial. It depends on the power of the court hearing the case. In the High Court, the maximum penalty by way of fine or imprisonment t is unlimited. Serious cases could be taken to the High Court, so those who indulge in such activities should be aware that they lay themselves open to extremely severe punishment.

    I hope that, in the light of what I have just said, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge will not wish to press his clause. I know from what he said earlier that he wants to give this important subject an airing, and the Bill is a vehicle to that end. I hope that he has been assured that Scotland has the law to deal with such matters. In the High Court, we have the penalties which should cause anybody who contemplates such disgraceful action to have second thoughts.

    I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for those remarks. The Scottish law is apparently superior to the English law, but I am grateful to him for spelling out the position. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) for what he said on behalf of the official Opposition. The issue is important, and it is quite clear that the parties in the House fully recognise that.

    It is also useful to know that under Scottish common law such matters can be dealt with, that there are severe penalties, and that if such offences are perpetrated in Scotland they will be dealt with severely. I only hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General may feel inclined in the not too distant future to consider carefully the law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that it has beneath it the same safety net as the Scottish law, as my hon. Friend the Minister has so clearly explained. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, and for the opportunity of raising the issue in this short debate.

    I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

    Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.