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Dawn Primarolo: The hon. Gentleman raises a separate question about the food protection role across all local authority and central Government functions. I am trying to give an answer about something that I think is very important—I want to answer the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East asked, specifically about the role and qualifications of analysts and how the Government see those developing.

Norman Lamb: Will the Minister give way?

Dawn Primarolo: I will give way once more, and then I shall try to make some progress. I am trying to be delicate in ensuring that hon. Members know what we are, and are not, talking about.

Norman Lamb: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Much of what she says about co-ordination between local authorities, the sharing of resources and so forth makes sense. However, the Association of Public Analysts believes that judgments about sampling are not always based on an assessment of risk but based on financial constraints. Given that those concerns are being raised by the professional body, is she prepared to consider further its fear that judgments are not based on risk alone but that financial issues are involved, and would she pick up on my suggestion of a meeting?

Dawn Primarolo: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that many people seek to advise Ministers. They do so from their particular perspective, and the Minister has to put all those views on the table. I rely on the advice of the Food Standards Agency. Hon. Members are asking whether there is a risk to public health and whether we have the facilities necessary to ensure that all arrangements are discharged. On that point, the FSA is in regular contact. I shall deal later with the consultation and the future, as many other important points have been made in that connection, but it seems to me that that is the proper place for such discussions to take place and for proposals to be made to me as Minister. That is my clear steer to the FSA, and I shall say what it is and how I see it going forward in answer to the points raised by hon. Members.

Another thing has changed dramatically: developments have put the onus on food business operators to ensure that they discharge their obligations. Inevitably, that will result in other requirements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East knows, manufacturers are required by law to identify situations where food safety issues may arise and to establish measures to address them. They must keep records to confirm that suitable monitoring has taken place, and they have a legal responsibility to notify the FSA about actual or suspected threats to the safety or quality of food.

My hon. Friend said that dioxin had recently been found in pork. He will know that the food producers and the retail system enabled us, in partnership with the FSA, to identify immediately where their products come from, whether or not there was a problem, and take them off the shelf. That happened very speedily. At the heart of it was the protection of the consumer. As a result, local authorities have a far more exacting way in which to target sampling. They need the flexibility to decide for themselves how to invest, but we must ensure
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that everything fits together to give an enforcement service that delivers exactly what we need, regardless of whether we have national sampling or protection laws.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) spoke of testing, but I want to give an example when national testing would completely take over. He mentioned the E. coli bug. All the necessary work was done by public health bodies, not public analysts, and the microbiology was funded by the Department of Health. As I said, calling them public analysts is a bit of a red herring; it does not necessarily mean that they are public. Four or five of them are from local authorities, and the rest are commercial private sector bodies.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but the bottom line is that local authorities are responsible in law for ensuring that all food for sale in their area is fit for consumption, and the FSA audits local authorities to assess their implementation and enforcement of food law. The agency advises me that it has found no evidence of local authorities failing in their statutory duty. Obviously, if it found a failing, it would take action against the local authorities. If my hon. Friends fear that there are, or if they know of, examples in their area, I invite them to make representations to me so that I can double-check that they have been investigated fully.

I should like to reassure my hon. Friends that the FSA is monitoring the decline in the number of laboratories, and there is an open door to take action if it finds evidence that standards are slipping and that food safety is compromised. However, the agency advises me that all the evidence suggests that a local market-based approach is working.

I shall now turn to the important points that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East made on recruitment and standards in the service, as I said I would. I think he agrees that we face a considerable recruitment challenge and, as he pointed out, two thirds of practising analysts are over the age of 50. It is therefore extremely important that we encourage more people to go into the service, particularly gifted young scientists and graduates. The FSA is working to try to have a clear career path in place for prospective and new entrants. That is why it is working with the APA to improve, for example, the information that is available on its website on the types of jobs available. The agency is also making a funding contribution to the APA’s training programme. However, as I think we all agree, we need more radical solutions. We need to get fresh blood into the profession, but we also need to look at the challenges that we expect the service to face, which have been mentioned.

As my hon. Friend stated, the European regulation states that food analysis must be carried out by a suitably qualified and experienced member of staff, which is far less prescriptive than the Food Safety Act 1990. That led the FSA to think about whether it needed to change the law in the UK to bring it in line with Europe.

I want to explain how that might be taken forward, but at the outset I wish to make absolutely crystal clear the immense respect for the masters of chemical analysis qualification. It is not my place to comment on whether the degree should be upgraded to a doctorate—as my hon. Friend said, that is for the RSC to advise on—but I am happy to put it on the record that I believe that the
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MChemA should remain the pre-eminent qualification. At the moment, the FSA is exploring whether it should be the only viable qualification. It is not about downgrading a qualification. We need not only to respond to the decline in numbers and to attract fresh blood, but to consider other comparable qualifications that could be appropriate, and whether we need to develop a tiered approach, by which the MChemA remains the top-ranking qualification but other qualifications would allow a person to take a significantly different role in the service. Let me give an example. The university of Stirling is the world leader on irradiated food, which people are concerned about, but it does not offer the MChemA qualification, so it cannot be within the service.

In the consultation with the Royal Society and others, we need to consider the type of analytical outcomes and sampling programmes that we want, and whether it might be possible to appoint others for testing to specific standards. We must also consider what type of proposals would help laboratories to develop expertise in set areas and would open up the potential for guaranteed work in specific areas of food testing, possibly encouraging others to come into that area. That is what we are concentrating on, and that is what I expect the FSA to concentrate on.

We are considering options and putting them on the table, and the FSA is looking into them. I agree with my hon. Friend that consultation is crucial, and not just with the APA, but with the Royal Society as well. I am more than happy to set up for him, and other hon. Members who are interested, a direct meeting with those in the FSA leading the review. That would be as well as, not instead of, the consultation with other organisations that will go ahead as is right and proper. The next step needs to be to look closely at that, and at the proposals, and to ensure that we have a clear way forward. My hon. Friend may also be interested to know that following a recent food law enforcement practitioners meeting, it was agreed that these matters would be considered and taken forward. Again, I am more than happy to ensure that he has the details on that in order to engage in that discussion.

I want to make it clear to every hon. Member present that we feel it is absolutely imperative to maintain the highest standard of food control, but there are challenges ahead. Of course, we should not downgrade the pre-eminent qualification in this science, but we need to consider whether others could bring skills into the service. We also need to consider how the service will be co-ordinated, going forward, for all the reasons that my hon. Friends have identified. At the same time, we must make sure, as I will be doing after the debate, that the FSA keeps a very close eye on the work that is going on in local authorities and nationally to give the assurance that all hon. Members have sought that food safety is of the highest priority, and that legal obligations to protect the consumer and ensure that food is fit for human consumption will continue to be enforced with great rigour. In that way, we can take the service forward. I do not accept that it is in a state of crisis, but I do accept that we need to act quickly to secure its continued work and commitment in this area. I hope that, with those
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assurances, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East will take some comfort from today’s debate. The matter is not closed, and it certainly is not about doing down a qualification.

Dr. Iddon: Will my right hon. Friend say something about the review group that met two years ago and has still not reported its findings? That was also an issue that concerned other hon. Members.

Dawn Primarolo: The reporting by the review group will be brought together with the current consultations about the service. I accept the point that my hon. Friend and others have made. It would certainly help those in the field if there were a clearer statement of intent from the Food Standards Agency and Ministers. I accept that many of the questions that have been asked, and fears that have been raised, are because of a lack of information and a clear road map going forward. I will certainly take the matter away and ensure that it is dealt with. That could be part of the discussion that my hon. Friend has with his colleagues when I facilitate the meeting that I promised.

Mike Penning: Will the Minister explain why none of the recommendations of the review, which took place 10 years ago, has been implemented? Not a single one! How can we have any confidence going forward if the Government have not implemented the recommendations from the last review?

Dawn Primarolo: As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, the last review was conducted 10 years ago, before the formation of the Food Standards Agency. When the FSA was formed, it was recognised as an enormous step forward in the protection of the consumer and in ensuring food safety. Many of those issues would have been to do with that process. Although this is a matter that I was not familiar with at the time—I was in another Department—I speculate that in setting up the FSA itself, the focus on the review and some of the issues that were around before the FSA’s existence were ones that were not actively taken forward at that time. The crucial issue is that the FSA continually discharges its duties with regard to the protection of the consumer.

Mike Penning: Rather than speculate, will the Minister be kind enough to write to me and let me know what was and was not implemented?

Dawn Primarolo: I am more than happy to do that. I was trying to avoid the catch-all phrase, “I will write to the hon. Gentleman.” I think that I am not too far wide of the mark in my suggestion to him, but I am happy to write to him.

In conclusion, this has been a very helpful debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and all the hon. Members who have spoken. It is crucial that our constituents have confidence in food safety and the food that they purchase as citizens. As science and skills develop and as the production of food evolves, we need to ensure that we have the very best structures and qualified service to continue to protect our citizens. That is certainly the brief that I have given to the FSA.

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Small Businesses (HBOS)

12.30 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con) rose—

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. Unusually, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and the Minister have agreed that a number of other speakers can participate. The hon. Members whose names I have and whom I will allow to speak are the hon. Members for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) and for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey). Any other hon. Members who want to speak will have to do so in an intervention because we really must leave the Minister time to respond to the comments that are made. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that any individuals about whom they make comments will not have any redress, because of the absolute privilege that exists in this Chamber.

Mr. Paice: Thank you very much, Mr. Taylor. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue. I am also grateful to my many right hon. and hon. Friends who have joined me. As you rightly said, it will be a challenge to get everyone in in a 30-minute debate, so I will move swiftly on to the meat of the issue.

The debate revolves around a number of businesses whose affairs were handled by the Reading office of HBOS, under the management of a Mr. Lynden Scourfield, until early 2007. The issue was the subject of a BBC investigation for “File on 4”, which was broadcast on Tuesday 26 May.

Let me say that this is not about Government policy, and I have had a brief conversation with the Minister. There is evidence not only that the bank’s own regulatory controls failed, but that the Financial Services Authority should have been informed. In at least some cases, there is evidence to justify criminal investigations. The objective of the debate is to persuade the Minister to undertake to present the issue to the regulatory authorities for a full and exhaustive examination.

The issue was first raised with me by my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Turner, but it soon became obvious that theirs was just one of many businesses in the same position, and some of those other businesses are represented by colleagues here today. My remarks will deal partially with the Turners, but I have further evidence to present to impress the seriousness of the issue on hon. Members.

Before I do, however, I want to make two preliminary points. The first is the point that you have just made, Mr. Taylor. This is the first time in my 22 years as a Member of the House that I have intentionally used parliamentary privilege to raise an issue, and I certainly do not intend to abuse that right. Secondly, I do not pretend to know the financial details of my constituents’ business or any other business, or the business competence of any of those involved, but the issues that I want to raise go beyond that. As I shall show, Lynden Scourfield was responsible for making what may or may not have been poor financial positions into impossible ones, and in doing so probably enriched himself and others.

In July 2003, the Turners’ business, which was called Zenith, had a £50,000 overdraft. The Turners submitted a business plan to HBOS in Cambridge requesting
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funding of £450,000, of which £160,000 would be under the small firms loan guarantee scheme. In August, the scheme aspect was approved, but HBOS Cambridge referred the overall request to its credit department, which, it transpired, meant moving the request to Reading.

In April 2004, the Turners met Lynden Scourfield, who agreed funding on the condition that Zenith engaged and paid Quayside Corporate Services. As a result, new business plans were submitted requiring more borrowing. By January 2006, the Turners had had enough and asked the bank to stop imposing Quayside on them.

By August 2006, the bank had started proceedings to evict the Turners from their home, which had earlier been provided as security. However, only one month later, in September, Lynden Scourfield agreed to increase their borrowing facility to £856,000. By November 2006, Scourfield told the Turners to fund the business by using corporate credit cards at £12,000 a month, which he would authorise.

On 21 March 2007, the Turners were due to meet Mr. Scourfield in Reading. The meeting was cancelled, and his office told them that he was on indefinite leave but that they would be seen by a new man, who was cutting off all lines of credit to more than 200 of Lynden Scourfield’s customers.

I will not go through all the subsequent events, other than to make two points. First, the eviction proceedings continued, including two court hearings. District Judge Pelly said,

Secondly, the Turner family were concerned that HBOS had broken the rules of the small firms loan guarantee scheme by using it to pay off existing overdrafts, which is strictly forbidden. That has been referred to the financial ombudsman, who is yet to make a final decision. Since then, other examples of the apparent abuse of the scheme by HBOS have emerged from other businesses, all of which have expressed no confidence in the independence of the financial ombudsman service.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I think that there is a common cause. A constituent of mine was involved with a business called Chauffair. In 2002, a rescue package with business men to make the company work was stopped by HBOS and Mr. Scourfield. Quayside was brought in. Two companies and five years later, the original debt of about £14 million that was covered by assets has risen to £113 million and the money has disappeared.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is quoting just one of a number of similar examples.

In March 2008, the Turners approached me and I started to correspond with HBOS. By then, it was apparent that all these other businesses were involved. By December 2008, five colleagues and I wrote to Lord Stevenson, who was then the chairman of HBOS. The key part of our letter stated:

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We sought a meeting with Lord Stevenson.

After the changes in HBOS at the end of last year, we met Mr. Philip Grant, the chief operating officer of Bank of Scotland Corporate. In a letter to me and my colleagues dated 18 February this year, he stated that the bank

Pertinently, he stated:

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