Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab):
We have heard a lot in this important debate about producer interests. I want to detain the House for a few minutes to talk about the interests of consumers and to remind the House that, even as we speak, there are mums—and dads, too—hovering over the frozen food cabinets of their corner shops, supermarkets or favourite frozen food stores, looking at their favourite processed meat product and saying, “Is this what it says it is? Is it even safe?” For those ordinary mums and dads up and down the country, it is not enough for Ministers to hide behind this or the other quango, as this horsemeat scandal has clear public health implications—possible implications, but implications none the less. There is a public health dimension, so responsibility falls fairly and squarely on Government.
We are relieved in the House today to understand that at this point there is no evidence that antibiotics or other drugs have entered the food chain. That is what we know today, but we know from previous food scandals that what we know this week may change week on week. It is the public health aspect that makes this an issue for Government. It is the public’s belief—it is a belief as old as the Chamber itself—that when it comes to the adulteration of foodstuffs, whether it is watered-down milk in the Victorian era or horsemeat in lasagne in 2013, they can look to Government to take some responsibility.
The other point to make is that we should not forget that this scandal affects the very poorest in our community and their children. Who, really, is eating £1 lasagne and so-called value burgers? Who buys those things, except the very poorest in communities such as mine? Often they feed them to children. I hear people saying, “Oh, you’d have to eat an awful lot of these things for there to be any discernable effect on your health,” but I put it to Ministers, who might not be aware of this, that there are families in communities such as mine who eat an awful lot of cheap, processed food. They deserve absolute assurances about its quality, not Ministers hiding behind quangos.
It must concern anyone taking an interest in this debate that the whistle was blown not by the Food Standards Agency in England, but by the Food Safety Authority in Ireland. What does that say about the processes and procedures in the British Isles? There are issues with the break-up and reorganisation of the FSA and the loss of trading standards officers locally. Serious issues have also been raised for some time about the cuts to the Meat Hygiene Service, so for Ministers to say that the ultimate responsibility lies somewhere else is not something that the British public accept or believe for a second. It is no coincidence that this issue has been headline news for some days in the British media, whether they ostensibly support the Government or not. I believe that it will continue to be headline news until it plays itself out, because historically there has been no issue of greater concern to British families than the quality of the food that they eat.
A fundamental issue arising from the horsemeat scandal is the price of cheap food. All along the food chain, relentless pressure has been exerted for decades to drive down costs at the farm gate, and at production, manufacturing and retail levels. There are obviously sections of the British community who cannot afford expensive products, but the main pressure on costs comes from the massive retail chains.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. The consequence of driving down costs has been to drive down quality as well. Is it not invidious that some products being sold as beef have never come into contact with a cow?
I entirely agree. The pressure on costs inevitably means pressure on quality. Instead of cutting back institutions such as the Meat Hygiene Service and reorganising and destabilising the FSA, the Government should be putting more resources and effort into guaranteeing the quality of food, right down to the cheapest products being bought by the poorest members of our communities.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not; I want to make some progress. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) made an important point that relates to my points about pressures on costs and business pressures. He mentioned the delay in Findus withdrawing its products. It seems to be the case that Findus delayed withdrawing its product until after the weekend so that it could move another 100,000 units and bolster its profits. This is what I mean about the pressures; they are inimical to ensuring that our people can purchase a quality product, even at the lowest cost. My hon. Friend referred to the chief executive officer of Findus, Dale Morrison. Even as we are debating the issue in Parliament and our constituents are wondering whether the processed meat product of their choice is safe, he is sitting in his skyscraper in Manhattan, apparently oblivious to our cares so long as he can see the share price of Findus going in the right direction.
There are public health questions that need to be answered. The quality of our foodstuffs is too important a matter to be left to the moral sense of private equity predators. I believe that this issue has a long way to run. The Government should not be hiding behind civil servants or quangos. They must accept their moral responsibility for the quality of the food that our people purchase in the shops, and for any possible threat to public health.
The full debate is available to view here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm130212/debtext/130212-0002.htm#13021255001616