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Licensing Of Certain Premises

Volume 173: debated on Thursday 7 June 1990

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'.—(1) This section shall have effect for securing the licensing of certain premises used for the purposes of a food business by means of regulations under section 20(1)(b).

(2) The Ministers shall make regulations under section 20(I)(b) in respect of premises in which food is prepared by the processes of pre-cooked chilled products, low-acid canning, aseptic packaging and vacuum packaging.'.— [Dr. David Clark.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the clause be read a Second time.— [Dr. David Clark.]

8 pm

New clause 5 would strengthen the Bill by providing a licensing system that will ensure that certain food premises where various food processes are conducted are licensed and not registered. The Government propose to introduce a register, which would be excessively bureaucratic and take considerable time to compile and would require considerable finance to maintain. Such a register would do little to stem the tide—the epidemic—of food poisoning that is sweeping the country. The word "epidemic" is not mine; it was used by the chief medical officer of health—Ministers are always quoting the chief medical officer of health—who told the Select Committee's salmonella inquiry that an epidemic of food poisoning was sweeping the country.

The Government's answer to that problem is a registration scheme that will do nothing to improve minimum standards or ensure that the owners of premises are trained or experienced. Environmental health officers will not prosecute people who are not registered. They will find someone who is not registered and say, "You are not registered, so go along and register." If environmental health departments decide to prosecute, they will be accused of being petty. They will go to a magistrate, and he will ask, "What laws have been broken?" They will say, "He refuses to register." He will ask, "Has he corrected that?" They will say, "Yes." The magistrate will then give an absolute discharge and tell the environmental health people not to come back with such trivial matters.

Registration reminds me of the ribbon around an expensive Easter egg—it is there for effect. When one eats the egg, one finds that the ribbon adds nothing to the taste. At the end of the day, the ribbon ends up in the bin. All that adds to the cost of the egg. It is very much like the Government's Green Paper on protecting the consumer—many words but not much action. That criticism could be made of the Food Safety Bill.

I should like to quote—or misquote—George Bush, the American President. During the presidential elections, referring to the policies of Michael Dukakis, he asked, "Where's the beef?"—I suspect that, if he were in Britain in 1990, he would have found another phrase. What he meant was, "Where's the substance in the policies?" There is no substance in the registration of food premises, but there would be great substance in a licensing scheme. That is the view not only of the Labour party but of the Consumers Association, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Institute of Environmental Health Officers. It is also the view of a scientist—Sir Mark Richmond, the Government's appointed chairman of the committee on microbiological safety of food. In a letter dated 24 August 1989 to the present Minister—he is always saying that he has just come to the Department, so bovine spongiform encephalopathy has nothing to do with him—he said that at least all catering establishments, processing of pre-cooked chilled products, low acid canning, butchery and meat processing and vacuum packing should be licensed.

What did the Government do? They completely ignored that advice. Less than a fortnight ago, the Minister gave evidence to the Select Committee and said, "I should like to cull calves, but my advisers say that we should not do that. I should like to carry out research, but my scientists advise me that it is not necessary." His chief scientist, Sir Mark Richmond, advised him to introduce licensing. For one reason or another, the Minister decided to kick out that advice. We suspect that the food processing industry has put pressure on the Government. That reason alone has prevented the introduction of licensing.

We do not have licensing because the Minister has said that it is bureaucratic and not practical. However, we have licensing systems. For example, betting shops, cinemas and theatres are licensed.

When we talk about licensed premises, we normally talk about public houses. Since the Ale House Act 1928, we have had licensed public houses. It is not a simple matter of going to a local council and getting a licence. The process is complicated, but it works successfully. I have not heard any Minister say that public houses should not be licensed. A person who wishes to obtain a licence applies to magistrates and submits a plan of the public house. The magistrates then decide to have a site visit to examine the premises and determine whether it is fit for the consumption of alcohol.

The licensee is brought to court and questioned. He is asked, among other things, "What training, qualifications and experience do you have to he granted a licence to run a public house or a restaurant?" It is ironic that the Government are concerned about public houses. When it comes to selling alcoholic beverages to get people drunk, premises must be licensed, but when it comes to selling people food that can poison or kill them, all that is needed is a register. There is no common sense in that policy.

We have the remnants of Thatcherism. Common sense says that we should have a licensing system, but all we have is the old policy of "Get the bureaucrats off the back of business and let the free market go forth and prosper". Ironically, all the markets in this country are also licensed. However, the free market, when it comes to food processing and the sale of food, kills people. That is why I hope that we can have a positive response from the Minister.

I suspect that there is a leeway in the Bill for the introduction of licensing. If this Government do not introduce licensing, the next Labour Government will look seriously at it so that people can be protected against those who are concerned only with making profits. That does not apply to the majority of people who sell food, but it certainly applies to the minority who cause the problems.

When the Minister replies, I hope that he will say that the Government have been convinced and that they will change their policies. If they do not, a Labour Government will give the matter serious consideration. We should be grateful to this Government for giving us the means of implementing a licensing system.

I believe that this is the first occasion on which the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) has spoken from the Opposition Front Bench for his party. I welcome him to his new responsibilities. Although I did not find his argument persuasive, I hope that this will be the first of many occasions on which he speaks from that Dispatch Box.

The hon. Gentleman began by suggesting that registration is too bureaucratic. He supported that assertion by suggesting that environmental health officers would not be able to initiate prosecutions for non-registration. That power exists, but I hope that there will be relatively few prosecutions for non-registration. The hon. Gentleman's argument missed the point about the purpose of registration. Registration itself is not part of an enforcement mechanism. It is the machinery for giving sufficient information to the environmental health department of the enforcement agency to allow it to use the other powers of the Bill effectively and to reinforce its provisions. Registration is explicitly part of the light regulatory regime that we are seeking to introduce, which would be effective but no more heavy-handed in arty individual case than is specifically necessary to achieve the objective.

I am pleased that today I have been able further to elaborate the registration scheme that we propose because today I have published the draft registration form, copies of which are available in the Vote Office. It is a straightforward form that contains only eight questions. It should therefore be quick to complete.

A key section of the form asks businesses to state the type of business that is carried out on the premises. Businesses are divided into three main groups—catering premises, retail premises and food manufacturing premises. The heading "food manufacturing premises" is subdivided to highlight certain processes, including the four processes that are identified in the new clause. Any food business will have the right to register, and the process of registration will not be subject to a charge.

Registration will enable local authorities more easily to identify the types of food premises within their boundaries and will consequently enable them to target their enforcement action more effectively. Enforcement officers will have a range of powers—inspection; seizure; the issue of improvement notices, prohibition orders and emergency prohibition notices; and prosecution. Ministers will have the power to make emergency control orders. We believe that registration backed by that panoply of powers, which are the effective machinery of enforcement, will be a simple but effective way of ensuring good standards of hygiene throughout the food industry.

The new clause suggests that we should license the premises used for the four processes that are quoted in the new clause. The hon. Member for Carlisle prayed in aid the report of the Richmond committee and suggested that it endorsed his argument. That is not strictly true. The Richmond committee suggested that the process—not the premises—should be licensed.

However, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the Government are taking the power that is contained within the Bill to do what he proposes, should the need arise. I do not believe that the need will arise, but I prefer the way that we are advocating because it is much more flexible than his suggestions. There is already the longstop that the hon. Gentleman wants, because we can invoke that power. However, I do not believe that it will be necessary. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his new clause.

Question put and negatived.