Labour attacks silence over babies' deaths

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The Government will face questions in the Commons this week about claims that ministers kept the public in the dark over the dangers of the food-poisoning bacteria listeria.

Margaret Beckett, Labour's health spokesman, said she was "very concerned" about a report which said 26 babies died and more suffered serious injury while Whitehall prevaricated between 1987 and 1989.

Virginia Bottomley, then Secretary of State for Health, and Gillian Shephard, then agriculture minister, were singled out as having signed public interest immunity certificates suppressing documents revealing the delay when families of victims sought legal redress. The gagging orders were thrown out by a judge.

According to a Sunday Times report yesterday, the documents revealed leading civil servants at the two departments knew that soft cheeses, cook-chill foods, chickens and pates were likely to carry listeria, which causes miscarriages, stillbirths and serious illnesses.

But no public warnings were issued until 1989 - two years after they became aware of the danger and four years after the first warnings were made in the United States.

The Labour MP Alf Morris, a former health minister, called for an urgent statementfrom the Prime Minister. He said: "This is especially urgent as it is now established that the Government was fully aware of the risks of stillbirths and serious congenital injuries long before they alerted the public in 1989.

"Had these scores of mothers lived in the US or Germany, or had the British government heeded the warnings of the World Health Organisation, then their babies would have been protected.

"As some of the ministers involved are still members of the Government and as more than one department was involved, there is a strong case for a statement from the Prime Minister himself."

The Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture refused to comment but issued identical statements on behalf of the two ministers.

The statements read: "[Mrs Bottomley/Mrs Shephard] was advised that since the documents in question fell within a public interest immunity [PII] class which was well recognised by the courts and it was not clear that their disclosure would be ordered there was a duty to claim PII and leave it to the court to decide whether the overall public interest would be served by upholding the claim or by disclosure of the documents.

"The court decided that the making of the PII certificate followed the correct procedure and that disclosure would nevertheless be appropriate in this particular case."