West End diners at risk of food poisoning

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TOURISTS and diners at restaurants in central London risk food poisoning each time they eat because Westminster Council's food safety inspection system is failing.

A spokesman also admitted misleading reports had been filed about the number of inspections made but denied this was to cover up the serious problems in Westminster's Environmental Health Department. An internal council report, leaked to Radio Four's Today programme, showed as many as 3,000 food outlets across London's most-visited borough had not been inspected. Restaurants and cafes were inadequately checked for traces of E coli and legionnaires' disease, the council admitted. Hospital canteens may also have been among those missed off the inspection list.

Karen Buck, MP for Regent's Park and Kensington North, said: "It is extremely worrying these food outlets are not being inspected, especially in the light of last year's tragic events in Scotland and the deaths there from E coli. Let us hope those premises that haven't been inspected are in fact safe."

The council has been accused of failing in its statutory duty under Section 40 of the Food Safety Act 1990 to inspect premises where food is supplied to the public. Westminster is also alleged to have misled the Audit Commission about the situation by filing inaccurate performance indicators to cover up the problem.

The Commission published figures last week showing Westminster, with a 100-per-cent inspection record, one of only two London boroughs to do so. In fact, Tony Lear, director of Environment and Planning at Westminster, admitted at least 1,700 food outlets had slipped through the council's net and had not been inspected. At least 900 of these had still not been visited and the backlog is not expected to be cleared before summer.

Mr Lear said the problem arose as the department's data base had not been kept up to date. He said: "Clearly the management process failed. People weren't recording information properly and we had an IT system that wasn't particularly adequate.

"We recognised in July 1997 that there was a problem. We thought there were 5,500 food premises in Westminster; in fact we underestimated by up to 3,000."

The internal audit of the council's Environmental Health Department revealed files were out of date and inaccurate. Staff were demotivated and incapable of collecting food samples correctly. One establishment had been reported to the council 73 times by members of the public, but was still not inspected. Tessa Jowell, Minister for Public Health, said: "I shall be ... insisting they discharge their duty to protect the health of their residents and the thousands of people who visit Westminster."

A spokesman for the Audit Commission said an investigation was being launched to discover if incorrect figures had been filed in its annual publication of local authority performance indicators.

He said: "In providing information to publish, the process is that we rely on the honesty of the authority. It has never been the case in the past that we have been fed information that is incorrect. We are on new ground here."