HC Deb 10 May 1983 vol 42 cc738-57

Order for Second Reading read.

3.44 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is short and fairly simple. It is necessary as a result of the recent judgment of the European Court on the subject of UHT — ultra-heat-treated — milk. I shall remind the House of the background to the case. The court considered the case in May 1981. The Commission then applied for a declaration that the United Kingdom had failed to fulfil its obligation under article 30 of the treaty by making imports of UHT milk and cream subject to measures equivalent to quantitive restrictions. The Commission took the view that these measures were excessive given the nature of the product, and argued that public health could be adequately protected under a less restrictive regime. The Government stoutly resisted that view throughout the court's written proceedings and at the oral hearing on 10 May 1982.

The judgment of the court was delivered on 8 February this year. The court found that our regime was contrary to Community law. On the other hand, it recognised that our anxiety about the public health implications of imports was legitimate and it accepted our right to lay down objective conditions regarding the quality of milk before treatment and the methods of treating and packing UHT milk.

The court also accepted that Britain could stipulate that imports of milk must satisfy these requirements. While not going beyond the need to protect health, we could demand certificates to show that our requirements had been satisfied and Britain could prevent the entry of consignments not complying with its standards.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House advised the House of the outcome; he stated that the Government would comply with the judgment and that the necessary legislation would be set in hand as soon as the details of the judgment had been studied and after consultations had been held with the Commission and other member states. My right hon. Friend further explained that to deal with the immediate position created by the judgment and to retain full safeguards for public health, the Government were taking temporary precautions against the import of unsafe milk by amending the open general import licence, thereby prohibiting imports. That was only a temporary measure.

To enable Britain to comply with the judgment, it is necessary to establish a permanent regime. Accordingly, clause 1 allows agriculture Ministers to make regulations to govern the importation of milk and the use of milk once it has been imported. The clause is deliberately widely drafted, although its main purpose is to allow the prohibition of imports that are not of a description to be specified under the regulations and which do not comply with certain conditions. Those conditions are not specified in detail but may cover matters such as ports of entry and certificates to show that Britain's requirements are being satisfied. Regulations may also provide for the quality of imported milk, inspection testing and the disposal of such milk if the regulations are contravened or specified requirements are not met. The Bill contains a provision for appeals to magistrates for offences and for appropriate penalties. The Bill allows the Government to establish a comprehensive milk import regime that will ensure that imports meet the same stringent health and hygiene requirements as are imposed upon our domestic production.

The Bill must do more than establish an import regime. Our domestic legislation must be altered to allow for the sale of imported milk and to make various other provisions to reflect the fact that imports are now allowed. Clause 1(7) allows Ministers to make the necessary regulations.

Clause 2 states that the regulations in question are to be made by statutory instrument and are subject to negative resolution. The clause also defines the terms used in the Bill and states that regulations may deal not only with milk and cream but with various milk-based products.

Clause 3 gives the short title of the Bill and states that it extends to Northern Ireland.

Work is proceeding on the regulations to be made under the Bill. The final shape of the regulations depends, to some extent, upon the outcome of discussions, which are continuing, with the member states. Those are continuing. The Government are in touch with various domestic interests. For those reasons, we are unable to give a detailed statement as to the contents of the regulations. However, their main effect will be to provide for the importation of UHT milk and cream and flavoured milk from member states subject to those products satisfying the same health and hygiene requirements on which, in the interests of public health, the Government insist for the production and processing of our own milk.

Such a regime would be in full accord with the court's judgment and with the undertakings that my right hon. Friend gave on 9 February, which received a broad measure of support. Furthermore, the Bill will ensure that consumers are protected against unsafe milk and that the producers and processors do not face unfair competition from milk that is not subject to the same stringent safeguards as apply to Britain's production.

The Bill is an essential part of that regime, and I urge the House to support it.

3.49 pm
Mr. Mark Hughes (Durham)

Although there are other matters that may attract the attention of hon. Members, we should not let this Bill go through without scrutinising it very closely. We are concerned about the continuation of a most valuable social and economic facility in this country—the doorstep delivery of milk. No one can be in any doubt that if the uncontrolled importation of UHT milk from the continent is permitted, it will pose a major and continuing threat to our dairy industry's ability to supply milk to the doorstep. No hon. Member would wish to take that risk.

I regret that the Government and others have seen fit to let the Bill go through on the nod at the fag-end of a Parliament, and that the opportunity open to the Dairy Trade Federation, the Dairymen's Association and others to offer amendments during the Committee stage has been curtailed. Had we been debating the Bill on Thursday, as originally planned, I would have urged my right hon. and hon. Friends not to vote against it but I would have sought a Committee stage that would have allowed many of the difficulties, fears and problems of the dairy industry to be highlighted and drawn to the Minister's attention.

Although we do not wish to prevent the Bill's passage, I must protest that many major interests in the dairy industry, such as those represented by farmers, the Dairy Trade Federation, the Dairymen's Association and the Milk Marketing Board, have not been given an opportunity adequately to scrutinise the Bill's details. The classic convention that after a Bill has been published and given its First Reading there are then two clear weekends before it is given its Second Reading, and that there is a further period before its Committee stage, has been denied to the House. Indeed, it has been denied not only to the House but to important and crucial interests in the community.

It would be improper to seek leave to introduce manuscript amendments at this stage, but the best and easiest way of pressing my points on the Minister is to describe the quasi-manuscript amendments that we have in mind. At the beginning of clause 1, before the phrase "Regulations under this section", it should be made quite clear that any such regulations should be at least as rigorous as those set for the United Kingdom's farmers, dairies and milk industry. At present, the Bill enables the Minister to make regulations that could be less rigorous. At this stage in the Parliament I suppose that it is unnecessary to quote section 29 of the Food and Drugs Act 1955, and the regulations under which internal producers and processors are required to act. However, nothing in this Bill, as it stands, requires such stringency. Therefore, we are being asked to pass an enabling Bill that is less rigorous than any of the internal regulations for the importation of milk.

If milk goes through the UHT process it is no doubt made free from bacteria, but every farmer in this country must have his milking parlour investigated and the whole process of milk production, starting from the cow's udder, must be checked. However, there is nothing in the Bill's provisions to make that essential. It may be done under regulations, but it is not essential. When we come to the regulations, I should like a clear assurance from the Minister that for every consignment of milk, certification will include details of the quality and handling of milk before processing, the bona fides and technical qualifications of the processor and the UHT process involved, and details of packaging and transport from the dairy. We can then ensure that there is no lacuna whereby milk from an unfit herd is brought into this country.

For example, if milk from a high grade farm that has perfectly acceptable dairy facilities is transported through an area that has a notifiable animal disease, will the regulations provide for its prohibition? I am not satisfied that the position is clear in the Bill. If there is an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in, or near, one of the Channel ports, can milk from the hinterland be allowed through even though there is a minuscule risk of infection?

I turn to something that may well seem to be a puerile problem. The definition of milk in clause 2, which is central to the whole of the Bill, does not accord precisely with the definition that the Minister and I debated about 18 months ago during discussion of a statutory instrument. Where and how does semi-skimmed milk come within the definition of milk in the Bill? The Bill states, "'milk' includes cream." I had never thought that it did. I thought that cream was on the top of milk, but that is neither here nor there. The definition begins: 'milk' includes cream and separated or skimmed milk". However, on the continent there is a clear rule. There, 1.5 per cent. or 1.7 per cent. counts as semi-skimmed milk and milk below 0.2 per cent. as skimmed milk. Why do not the Government define milk as full, wholesome normal British milk with nothing added and nothing taken away and then define the inferior, lower grades of milk?

To take a simple example, in this country we demand that the temperature of raw milk being transferred from farm to dairy shall not exceed 5 deg. If it does, the milk can be rejected. Is the Minister satisfied that under the Bill she has power to ensure that that regulation can be applied to all the suppliers of milk to UHT dairies on the continent? Although there is a clear test for the presence of extraneous water, toxic residues and the like, is she absolutely satisfied and can she satisfy the House that the quality requirements will be fully met under any regulations and that the inspection and testing will be carried out in fully equipped laboratories by properly trained people? Can she satisfy the House that the manner of sampling and analysis has been effectively established and is routinely effectively maintained?

We are disturbed about all this because we believe that the arrangements for the registration of importers and exporting dairies are inadequate. Had there been a Committee stage, we should have considered carefully the possibility of an amendment or a new subparagraph to clause 1(4) because there are grave doubts as to the adequacy of arrangements for the registration of importers and exporting dairies approved after voluntary inspection.

A more serious problem is posed by the precautions to be taken in relation to infection or contamination of milk. The Bill is an enabling measure, but are the precautions sufficient? I understand that the requirements and penalties of the Food and Drugs Act may be a matter for trial on indictment, But I see no such power in this legislation. The Government may argue that it is unnecessary to seek such power, but I believe that it should be in the Bill.

The most serious criticism of the Government's handling of the Bill is that, to the best of my knowledge —I have taken advice on this—there was no adequate consultation with the Dairy Trade Federation, the Dairymen's Association, the NFU or the Milk Marketing Board. In view of the extraordinary circumstances, none of them now wishes to impede the progress of the Bill, but they all believe that the process of consultation must be assured once the Bill becomes law. They must be given the same absolute assurance from the Minister, in case by some mischance the Conservatives return to power after 9 June, as I now give from the Opposition Front Bench —that before any regulations are inttroduced when the Bill becomes law there must be satisfactory consultation and agreement with the interested bodies. They have been sold very short in the amount of consultation that they have had. I believe that it is fair to say that some of them feel very strongly that they are being asked to sign a blank cheque without any adequate guarantee that the regulations that may follow will be consequent upon satisfactory consultation.

I hope that the Minister will also give an assurance that the word "use" in clause 2(2) shall include cooling and distribution, as it does under internal regulations. It may not be necessary to spell it out in the Bill, although had there been a proper Committee stage we should have sought to do so.

There is also the difficulty of milk containing other material, such as raspberry or chocolate flavouring. One of the difficulties in the legal case in the European court was that we always allowed the import of contaminated UHT milk so long as it was contaminated with raspberry flavouring, coffee flavouring or some other yucky substance when we would allow it in if it were pure. What are the arrangements under the Bill for controlling the level of contamination by such flavouring, however wholesome it may be to my children, if not to me? I hope that the Minister will provide an adequate answer on that.

At present, UHT milk commands less than 1 per cent. of total sales in this country, but there is a danger that farmers on the continent, buoyed up by a guaranteed market for butter, will sell their milk to butter factories which will then provide UHT, skimmed and semi-skinned milk for the supermarkets of this country at a price that will do mischief to the doorstep delivery. The Consumers Association and the consumer lobby make the valid point that the consumer should be able to obtain that milk at a lower price, but I say to them, "Beware". The cost in human happiness of the loss of the doorstep delivery is to be calculated not in pence per pint but in contentment of persons on a daily basis. Although we do not wish to inhibit the supermarkets from access to wholesome high quality UHT, semi-skimmed and skimmed milk, we must ensure that at every stage from the cow to the carton the same rigorous standards of hygiene are enforced on potential competitors as are required of our own domestic producers.

I am not satisfied that the Bill makes that requirement cast-iron. I should like the Minister to assure us that no dairyman or farmer in Europe is allowed to produce milk in less hygienic conditions and to send it in less hygienic conditions to dairies which can impose, via UHT, an apparent cleansing process that is to the detriment of a major industry and a major social service.

Although I do not urge my right hon. or hon. Friends to vote against the Bill, I ask the Government to accept that there are major shortcomings in it which, had we not faced prorogation and dissolution, we should have raised in Committee. Those hon. Members who had the good fortune to serve on the Select Committee on Agriculture which examined the dairy trade are well appraised of the problems. I do not believe that the Bill in its present form will solve those difficulties. I hope that the Minister will assure us that, if we are to suffer the misfortune of her party being returned to office, amending legislation will be introduced to correct those shortcomings, just as I assure the House that, when we are returned, such amending legislation will be introduced.

4.11 pm
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I associate myself entirely with the protest that has just been made by the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) against the selection of this legislation to be subjected to the rushed procedure resulting from the imminence of dissolution. That rush results in our not being able to consider the Bill carefully, still less to amend it.

It is obvious from the face of the Bill that it is of great importance to Northern Ireland. One reason why I associate myself with the hon. Member for Durham will become evident at once as I must apologise to the Minister and the House for the fact that a Select Committee which is obliged to arrive at its final report, also as a result of imminent dissolution, requires my presence in a few minutes. I hope that the Minister and the House will accept my apology and that the Minister will be good enough to write into the Official Report during her reply the answers to the matters that I shall raise for clarification or satisfaction on behalf of those who are deeply concerned in the dairy industry in that part of the United Kingdom.

The House will be aware that there is a more strict animal health regime in Northern Ireland than there is even in the rest of the United Kingdom. That has been made possible by the separation of that Province from the rest of the United Kingdom by sea. The practicability of strict control and regulation of the movement of products is relevant to animal health. As a result of this Bill, that will be substantially modified for milk.

I should like to put some specific anxieties and problems to the Minister. The Bill acknowledges that the United Kingdom is prevented from imposing certain restrictions on importation from other EC countries into the whole of the United Kingdom of milk which does not comply with regulations which we would otherwise have imposed. In that respect, Northern Ireland is put on the same footing as the rest of the United Kingdom regarding imports from outside the United Kingdom. If the relevant animal health regime in the Irish Republic is the same as in Northern Ireland, that would not have any deleterious effect on imports to Ulster from the Irish Republic. Therefore, I should be grateful if the hon. Lady would confirm whether the relevant animal health milk regulations in the Irish Republic are as stringent and effective for purposes of animal health as those which are enforced in Northern Ireland.

Having put that matter on one side, I shall now deal with imports into Ulster from other parts of the EC and imports—although that is not the correct term inside the United Kingdom — from Great Britain into Ulster. Surely this legislation and the regulations made under it will create a prejudice and risk to animal health in the Province which did not exist hitherto. It stands to reason that if more stringent regulations govern the importation of milk into Ulster from the rest of Great Britain than will do so in future, there will inevitably be a relaxation of that protection for the Province, and animal health in the Province will correspondingly be more at risk following the European Court's judgment and this legislation.

I should be grateful if the Minister would make it clear, as I fear she will have to do, that in principle that is indeed the case. If that is so, she should put on record the extent to which animal health in the Province will be theoretically or practically prejudiced by the new circumstances—that there will be importation of milk from Great Britain or from the rest of the EC, other than the Irish Republic, into Ulster which was hitherto not at risk, on the ground of maintaining the uniquely high level of animal health in the Province.

I fear that in this, as with so many other matters, we are at the mercy of the machine to which we have entrusted ourselves by our membership of the European Community. The least that we can ask on behalf of our constituents is that the Government should be candid about the consequences to those whom we represent. I should be grateful if, on the lines that I have described in my questions, the Minister would do that for the interests that are concerned in Northern Ireland.

I repeat my apology, that I shall able to benefit from the Minister's reply only in written form, but that is the form in which I assure her it will be anxiously and carefully studied by those concerned in the Province of Ulster.

4.17 pm
Mr. John Spence (Thirsk and Malton)

I should like to take up the point that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) made about animal health. I am deeply worried that sufficient scientific research has not yet been done to produce a conclusive answer to whether foot and mouth disease is carried through milk. With regard to animal health and British herds, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister would like to assure herself that UHT milk is not a carrier of that disease before regulations permitting the importation of milk are introduced in this broadly based Bill.

I was a member of the Select Committee on Agriculture. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister makes that Committee's report her private reading and has found matters of great interest in it. She will remember that we came down firmly on the side of maintaining the doorstep delivery. That point was adequately made by the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes). I wholeheartedly endorse his statement that doorstep delivery is uniquely British and hygienic, and that it brings with it a more developed form of customer service for which customers are prepared to pay. The introduction of regulations that may curtail doorstep delivery should be carefully considered.

The importation of milk may result in less milk being produced in Britain. I am not holding a torch for monopoly powers, but a diminution in the quantity of milk produced and consumed in Britain will, because we depend on dairy herds to supply beef cattle, have the knock-on effect of reducing the number of beef cattle on the market. If the inroads made by the importation of liquid milk were substantial, the knock-on effect would be serious. That considerably will affect my constituents who live on high ground and in the dales. Therefore, I hope that such social consequences will be considered.

The Select Committee came to the conclusion, although it may not have stated it in stark terms in the report, that before UHT milk is imported not only must it have a licence, but we must consider where it is produced and containerised and how it is transported. Many containers kept in one larger container for easy handling are stored on docksides and in railway stations in such awful conditions that the containers themselves will have to be certificated. Therefore, inspection at the point of production only will be insufficient and inadequate for our requirements.

I hope that the suggestions that have been made today will be considered.

4.23 pm
Mr. Thomas Torney (Bradford, South)

I listened intently to my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) and to other hon. Members. It is interesting that, as in the Select Committee on Agriculture, of which I was a member, there is wide agreement across the Floor of the House about protection for our doorstep delivery service and for our health, which is affected by the milk we drink. I endorse my hon. Friend's excellent suggestions for amendments and suggest to the Parliamentary Secretary and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that if their party returns to power after the little debacle we shall enter at the end of the week—

Mr. Geraint Howells (Cardigan)

They will not.

Mr. Torney

I hope that they do not, but if by some misadventure they return to power, I hope that the Minister will consider those amendments seriously because they are necessary.

I must declare an interest in that I am sponsored in the House by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. I am interested in jobs. The union represents many thousands of milk distribution workers, including processors and retail roundsmen. Those people are afraid of this Bill, as are some of the big firms. Only 15 minutes before I came into the Chamber for this debate, the chairman of one of the largest milk distribution companies in the United Kingdom— he is president of the Dairy Trade Federation—spoke to me on the telephone and expressed his fear of the Bill and his regret that it was being pushed through. He agreed with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Durham that there should have been consultation before the Bill was brought forward. There should also have been some consultation with the trade union movement. The two large trade unions in the dairy industry — my union and the Transport and General Workers Union—were not consulted but believe that they should have been.

The industry employs 100,000 people, about 45,000 of whom work on retail rounds. Anyone who knows the industry could tell us that the profit margin in the distribution of milk to the doorstep is narrow because transport and wages have become expensive. Doorstep deliveries are profitable only because of the great quantity of milk delivered. That is the only way in which it becomes viable—that word usually signifies redundancies—or worthwhile.

Dairy companies do not distribute milk to the doorstep simply because it provides such wonderful contact with the sick, the disabled and one-parent families. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has said often that it provides an invaluable service to such people, but the large dairy companies cannot afford to operate the service at a loss. Although only a small percentage of milk is imported into Britain and sold through the supermarkets, the difficulty and expense of providing the pinta on the doorstep means that it requires only a small reduction in the quantity delivered to the housewife for it to become uneconomic and unviable. If that happens, rounds will be cut and men will be sacked. The Government have a big enough record of job losses since they came to power. They should do nothing now to put more people on the dole, apart from the fact that we do not wish to lose this wonderful service. Nor do we wish to see a reduction in the amount of British liquid milk sold. No country can better the percentage of liquid milk that we sell, and we sell so much because of doorstep deliveries.

I appeal to the Minister to impress upon the Secretary of State the need for the Bill to be tightened. It is only an enabling Bill and we must wait to see what meat is in the pie when the Secretary of State makes the statutory orders. Let us hope that the Bill will enable him to make statutory orders strong enough to prevent the importation of foreign milk, to the disadvagntae of home producers. The importation of foreign milk must not mean that one pint of home-produced milk is thrown away or one worker who processes or delivers milk to the doorstep is put out of a job.

Like the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), I apologise to the House and to the Minister that I have soon to go to a Select Committee, the same one as the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Spence) referred to. We are trying to get our report out tomorrow so that we shall not have wasted taxpayers' money and all the work that we have done. The Select Committee on Agriculture is a vital Select Committee.

4.31 pm
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for not being here for her opening remarks. As the House will understand, Members are heavily committed and it is not always easy to be in the place that one wants at the right time.

I oppose the Bill. I can see no reason for its introduction at this time. I do not believe that we would be censured, taken to court or in any way penalised by the European Community if the Bill were not passed in the current Parliament. I see no reason for the undue haste with which the Bill is being rammed through the House of Commons against the wishes not only of milk producers but of the Dairy Trade Federation; I support the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) who quoted the president of the Dairy Trade Federation who is chairman of one of the major milk distributors, Northern Foods, and who feels that there is no need for the Bill to come before the House in what I would describe as the limbo period of this Parliament.

I say this for many reasons, representing as I do an area in which there are many milk producers, farmers who have devoted considerable investment and who work seven days a week, 24 hours a day, to maintain efficient dairy herds. I also represent a number of milk distributors, not Northern Foods but including Healds Dairies Ltd., a private company and a highly efficient milk distributor which is extrememly concerned about the implications of the Bill, which is to go through all its stages today.

I find it strange that the House should be debating this matter when there are so many issues of far greater import to the people which should have the time of the House. I accept, as I presume the Minister said, that the Bill is basically widely drawn. I can understand the reason. Of course, we have to establish adequate controls for imports of milk.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South highlighted many of the points which I should have wished to make. The importation of milk not only could affect our dairy herds and the incomes of dairy farmers but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Spence) said, could have a domino effect on beef herds. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows only too well, the social service provided by the doorstep delivery of milk is greatly appreciated by many deprived groups. I refer particularly to the elderly, who welcome the six-day-a-week—at least—knock on the door, or, shall we say, the tinkle of milk bottles on the doorstep, and also to the sick, the disabled and single-parent families. All these people greatly appreciate the service provided by milk distributors.

I am not saying for one moment that the Government, the Opposition, my hon. Friend the Minister or anyone responsible for the drafting of the Bill, including the bureaucrats in the European Community, are seeking to reduce a vital service. What I stress to my hon. Friend is that the impact of the Bill could have a deleterious effect upon this vital doorstep delivery service. This matter was touched on eloquently by the hon. Member for Bradford, South. Once the doorstep delivery has gone, as it has in so many other states that comprise the European Community, it will never come back.

It is easy to be wise after the event. If my hon. Friend can do nothing to redress what has happened, she should seriously consider the implications of a measure that is being put before the House in the last days of a Parliament. Why, for heaven's sake, could the matter not be put to the House after 15 June, which is when hon. Members will meet in this honourable place, or even after 23 June when Her Majesty the Queen, much respected by all, is, as it were, set upon a new programme by the new Conservative Government that will be elected on 9 June?

I did not agree with the comment of the hon. Member for Bradford, South about the disastrous impact of the Government's policies upon employment. Indeed, unemployment has gone up to a very high and unacceptable level. I want to do everything possible to reduce unemployment. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will admit that from time to time I have spoken from this side advocating measures that would bring down unemployment. I would point out to the hon. Member for Bradford, South and to the Liberal Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) that the Labour Government also doubled unemployment, so the Labour party has little to boast about on unemployment.

Can the Minister give the House an adequate reason why the Bill is being presented now and why it could not be presented to the House when the new Parliament is elected?

One important thing has been highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, who represents an area in the vales of Yorkshire where beef is of the utmost importance, and by the hon. Member for Bradord, South who for many years has taken a great interest in dairy matters and agriculture in general. Why do we have to introduce this measure? What is the urgency for it? What benefits will there be to this country in the next four weeks from the introduction of this measure? The point that both my hon. Friends made—which is valid and what the House is all about—is that before measures are introduced in the House there is normally time for adequate consultation. The hon. Member for Bradord, South highlighted the fact that there has been inadequate time for consultation, if any consultation at all, with those who drive the electric vehicles that deliver the milk to so many customers in this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton said that there had been inadequate consultation with the farmers, the milk producers and the Dairy Trade Federation. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has been a distinguished member of the Government, and I hope that she will be back with an increased majority after the election on 9 June because she has done a considerable job with the responsibilities that she has carried. She might even suggest to my right hon. Friend that the Bill should be tactfully withdrawn during this last debate on agricultural matters—I believe that it is the last—in this Parliament and that it will be reintroduced during the next Parliament.

If this place is about anything—I know that you, above all, Mr. Deputy Speaker respect this—it is about consultation. It is about this House reaching reasonable and constructive decisions based upon fact, not fiction, and upon the interests of the British nation, not the interests of the EC. For those reasons I endorse, with some limitations, the remarks made by the hon. Member for Bradford, South. I completely endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, who is deeply involved in agriculture matters—as I was for many years—as a Back Bench Member in his capacity as a member of the Select Committee and as an officer of the Conservative party committee on agriculture, fisheries and food.

I make a plea to the Minister. This Parliament is a democratic place. That is what it is respected for. Why is there any need for this Bill to be introduced now? I am unconvinced. I believe that the milk distributors and the milk producers are unconvinced and I ask my hon. Friend to have second thoughts. If she cannot, I hope that when she winds up, she will give assurances that no irretrievable decisions will be taken that could undermine a unique system—our doorstep delivery system—which ensures that this country of all the countries in the EC does not generate a surplus of liquid milk and that we have a healthy farming community. The farming community feels the domino effect. We may have cereal producers, but unless we also have the livestock producers, the cereal producers will be in trouble. Milk has a direct affect on beef and thus there is a domino effect.

I come from a constituency that is very urban in one part and very rural in the other—Macclesfield, in the northwest of the United Kingdom. I hope that my hon. Friend has heeded the genuine, sincere remarks that have been made from both sides of the House, and that, if she cannot withdraw the Bill, will give the assurances necessary to satisfy the concern and disquiet felt by both milk producers and distributors.

4.43 pm
Mr. Stanley Newens (Harlow)

There are many issues on which I disagree with the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) but I agree completely with him in his opposition to the Bill. It is unnecessary for this measure to be introduced at this moment. The hon. Gentleman will probably disagree with me when I say that the introduction of the Bill is illustrative—although it is not the most important issue—of the bad judgment that we have had on so many matters from the Government.

There is great concern, and there has been for a long time, that imports of cheap milk from the EC would in due course be allowed into Britain in bulk and so would destroy the doorstep system, inflicting great harm on an important part of our agriculture industry. If bulk milk were introduced into this country, a proportion of doorstep customers would be induced to opt out and make their purchases from shops. This would have the inevitable result that dairy rounds would become uneconomic. Less milk would be consumed and sold, to the disadvantage of consumers, the dairy industry and farmers alike. Those of us who are speaking against this measure believe that it is in the interests of all three sections—consumers, the dairy industry and the farmers—that we should retain the doorstep delivery.

I declare an interest in that I am sponsored in the House by the Co-operative party, and I have in the past had responsibility within the co-operative movement, which has a considerable trade in dairy products. Concern is deeply felt in the co-operative movement, but that concern is shared with every section of this industry. I appreciate that on the whole the importation of milk has been held back previously on health grounds, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) has pointed out, there are other considerations.

We must consider the effects on employment and on the total consumption of milk. These are matters that we should not sweep under the table. If the Bill had been brought forward in the normal manner in a normal Session there would have been time to consider it in depth, but in these circumstances there has been no such opportunity. The Bill is being rushed through, and it may be that we shall agree to a measure that in some ways will do damage to the industry about which we are concerned.

I have been in touch with members of the Dairy Trade Federation and the co-operative movement and they have expressed the view that this measure could and should have been left for the next Parliament. For the life of me, I cannot understand the need for haste. The Minister herself said that many aspects of this matter are not yet clear and will have to be talked about. In these circumstances, would it not have made good sense to have postponed the Bill until those matters had been settled? There is no reason why it should have been put through at this stage. A court case would not have produced a crisis during the general election period and there would have been ample time in the future to deal with all the aspects that are at present unclear.

The Bill is to authorise the importation of milk. Whatever the Minister's intentions, as the Bill stands, regulations can be introduced that will make it possible to bring milk into this country. This is a very important issue and we should have had the opportunity to consider all the implications of the matter. The bulk of consumers, dairymen and farmers are utterly opposed to large-scale importation of milk, which would destroy the milk producing and distributing industry as we know it today. Therefore, I want certain reassurances from the Minister, although I hope she will excuse me if I say that I may have to read some of them after the debate in Hansard because, like certain other hon. Members who have spoken, I am a member of the Select Committee on Agriculture, which is due to meet at 5 o'clock.

I hope that the Minister will make it clear that there will be no let-up in our opposition to the importation of milk. I am well aware that she cannot commit the next Government, and if, as I hope, the next Government are a Labour Government, I am sure that we shall not allow the matter to go further. However, if there is a disaster, and a Conservative Government are again elected to office, the people who will be appointed to take charge of agricultural matters may not feel particularly deeply on this issue. In those circumstances we shall have passed a Bill that will make it possible to take steps that will do considerable harm to the farming and dairy industries of this country.

Many people in the dairy industry, as well as farmers and consumers, have always been afraid that ultimately this Government would sell out on this issue, and frankly, that lack of confidence is not dispelled by the decision to put this Bill through at this stage. Indeed, there is little confidence about what is likely to happen.

My view is that we would have been much better off without this Bill at this stage. That view is shared by most of the people involved, who would have wished to be consulted on it. As drafted, the Bill could be a further step along the road to the destruction of our dairy industry. The Bill needs considerable amendment, and I am most unhappy about the threat that it represents. I therefore hope that when the Minister replies she will endeavour to make it quite clear that there will still be strong resistance to allowing milk to enter this country in quantities that will damage the part of our production and distribution which is of such great importance to our country as a whole.

4.52 pm
Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

I support the Bill, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the excellent speech that she made in introducing it. I apologise for the fact that, due to force of circumstances, I have been unable to remain here continuously since.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) about the haste and the way in which this important measure, which is quite an innovation, is being thrust on the House. However, I accept that there are special circumstances at present which must be taken into consideration.

I accept immediately that the Government need these powers, and that it is perhaps entirely through force of circumstance that the House does not have the time or opportunity—although it has the inclination—to carry out the detailed and searcing examination that a special Bill of this type, which introduces such far-reaching regulations, is entitled to—and indeed demands. I hope that after the election, when my hon. Friend is again sitting in her customary position at the Dispatch Box on this side of the House, we shall have a chance, if we allow the Bill to go through on trust today, to raise points after the measure is on the statute book and have a proper investigation.

I believe that the House is entitled to have—I am sure that we would have obtained it in Committee—statistical evidence about the present flow of milk from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. No doubt we should also have asked—I am sure that the Opposition would have asked in Committee—for details about the flow of milk and whether it relates to all dairy products going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. We should have asked whether there was a flow the other way, and whether that too would be affected by the regulations, although I understand that that will not happen.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) raised an important question about the importation of dairy products into Northern Ireland from either the rest of the Community or the Republic of Ireland. I confess that I have an interest in the latter, and I shall be interested to hear my hon. Friend's reply to the right hon. Gentleman, who has had to attend another pressing engagement, on the subject of health standards in the Republic. It would be most unfair if the House were to impose this barrier between Great Britain and Northern Ireland when a similar barrier was not imposed on trade between Northern Ireland and the remainder of the Community.

There has been grave disappointment throughout the dairy industry at the recent judgment of the European Court. The matter is particularly urgent and pressing—apart from the fact that we have an imminent general election—because speed is paramount. I am sure that that is why the whole House will accept my hon. Friend's explanation and allow the Bill to proceed. Although it is essential to give the Government the powers that they seek to control the quality of milk, it is important that all imports of UHT milk satisfy the same rigorous health and hygiene requirements that apply in the United Kingdom. I understand that after the Bill has been passed there will be detailed discussions about the regulations that are to be introduced. I hope that when my hon. Friend replies to this debate she will tell us that the same rigorous health and hygiene requirements that now exist in the United Kingdom will apply to all these imports.

With those few words, reiterating my regret at the haste and speed with which we are proceeding, but recognising that there is no alternative, I wish the Bill a speedy conclusion.

4.58 pm
Mr. Eric Deakins (Waltham Forest)

The Minister will have listened with interest to the reservations that have come from the representatives of all the parties here today about the haste with which the Bill is being rushed through. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) and the hon. Members for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and Harborough (Mr. Farr) all expressed that fear. We look forward to the Minister's reply.

Other concerns were also expressed. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) asked a number of pertinent questions about animal health and public health in Northern Ireland, and what he said was echoed by the hon. Member for Harborough. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some reassurance on those matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney), who has had to leave us to go to a Select Committee, made a number of points, some of which I shall echo. One, in particular, was about consultation, not only with the Dairy Trade Federation and the National Farmers Unions of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom, but with the trade unions.

Will the Minister say something about the pattern of consultation from now on? Will the regulations that will be drafted under the Bill provide adequate scope, time and opportunity for the interested bodies and parties to make representations on their details? It seems that that is the best method by which they can ensure that their concerns about this enabling legislation are met.

We have not heard much in the debate—certainly from the Minister—about why the Bill is needed in the first place. It is needed because a judgment of the European Court went against the United Kingdom. That court overruled an action by the Minister of Agriculture which was designed to protect the interests of British consumers and Britain's dairy industry. As a member of the EC, we had no option but to obey that judgment. As we are entering upon the election campaign, let us be clear that the policies of the Labour and Conservative parties are very different. Labour's policy of withdrawal from the EC and the negotiation of a new and fairer relationship will make the present position irrelevant. Our renegotiation will not include acceptance of the absurdities of the CAP which are basically responsible for the introduction of the Bill, particularly those relating to milk and milk products.

The problem does not arise because of the inefficiency of the British dairy industry or the distributive trades. We all recognise that our agriculture and its support industries can compete well with other comparable industries in east or west Europe. The problem arises from the CAP and the system for milk and milk products. We cannot change the system, so the Bill is necessary. The Government have tried to do so half-heartedly, but not very effectively. On the continent, milk production comes mainly from small herds and the only means that the authorities in the Common Market have to guarantee even a modest living standard to small farmers and their families is to pay a high price for the end product — milk. That is a major objective of the CAP, but it is not one that can be changed because it is a basic principle. The producer price for milk on the continent is being used to do what ought to be done by a form of direct income support for small farmers. That will not happen while the existing CAP continues.

As a result of that disastrous system, milk prices have been raised year by year during our membership of the EC in order to raise farm incomes and that inevitable process has led to many disastrous results and made the Bill become necessary. A rise in milk prices to producers means higher prices for consumers, both for milk and milk products. That in turn leads to a decline in the consumption of milk. In Britain, milk consumption has been declining by 1.5 per cent. a year since 1976. It also means a decline in the consumption of butter. Butter consumption has been halved since 1975 and between 1980 and 1982 it has fallen by 20 per cent. in Britain. If we go on like that, not even the Bill will help to save the British dairy industry.

Mr. Geraint Howells

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman in full flight, but if his party is advocating that we should pull out of the EC, perhaps he is not aware of the present prediction that British milk production will increase by 30 per cent. Whether we have a 10 per cent. increase in the annual price review or a 20 per cent. reduction, dairy producers in Britain are geared to produce more. Therefore, what message has the hon. Gentleman for British dairy producers? If they increase production by 30 per cent., where will they sell the surplus?

Mr. Deakins

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's figure of a 30 per cent. increase is accurate, but I accept that there is increasing production in Britain. That is one factor that will have to be taken into account in devising an alternative system of agricultural support in Britain under a Labour Government when we withdraw from the EC.

Higher milk prices mean over-production; the hon. Gentleman has just illustrated that point. That higher production cannot all be sold within the EC because consumers cannot afford the higher prices. We have been driven to costly intervention buying and the storage of stocks. Butter stocks have risen by 234 per cent. in the EC in the past 12 months. Skimmed milk powder stocks have risen by 122 per cent. Stocks are only one aspect of the absurdities of the CAP. They have to be paid for and that will mean a bigger cost on the agricultural share of the EC budget.

Surpluses have to be unloaded on to the world market—including the Soviet Union—at highly subsidised prices. It is amazing that under a Conservative Government, sales of butter to the Soviet Union are now about to be renewed at subsidies three times that at which butter is subsidised to the British housewife. The Government give priority to the Russian housewife over the British housewife. That is a theme which will emerge in the coming election campaign.

There is also the effect of surpluses on the agriculture budget. It is estimated that in 1983 the cost of disposing of surpluses in the EC will be £3,500 million—a substantial increase on the figure for 1982. That will mean a greater strain on the Community budget. We are already facing a battle next month in Stuttgart on the rebate on our 1983 budget contribution. It will be made worse by this increase in milk production and agricultural production generally.

That is not the end of the story about higher milk production in the EC because dumping of those surpluses on world markets means a disruption of world agricultural trade and that hits some of the poorer countries. Last but by no means least, it raises the serious prospect of a trade war with our closest ally and friend, the United States, which has at least done something to try to restrict its dairy surpluses by freezing dairy prices in 1982 and 1983. What an appalling system it is that produces such disastrous results for milk producers and consumers and for taxpayers. It is completely absurd.

There is worse to come. Continental milk producers are turning to UHT milk as another method of unloading their unwanted surpluses—in this case, unloading it on the United Kingdom market because we have the best and biggest liquid milk market in the EC. The Bill, in spite of the deficiencies which have been pointed out by several hon. Members, is the start of a fight back and to that extent it is to be welcomed. It is necessary to safeguard public health because health and hygiene standards on the continent may not be as high as they are in Britain. I have yet to see any positive evidence to the contrary.

The Bill is also necessary, as my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Mr. Newens) and for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) said, to safeguard doorstep deliveries. That is accepted, even by the Minister of Agriculture in his various statements. The doorstep delivery is a valuable public and social service, especially for the elderly, the sick and the disabled. It eases their shopping burden, because they do not have to carry cartons of milk home each day from the supermarket or corner shop as is done in the United States and on the continent. It is also a valuable service because the milkman acts as a good neighbour and keeps an eye on the elderly, the sick and the housebound. He can warn the emergency services if, for example, the empties have not been put out.

The Bill is also necessary, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South emphasised to safeguard employment in the dairy and related industries. It is estimated that about 75,000 jobs are at stake in liquid milk processing and distribution. Finally, the Bill is necessary to safeguard the interests of the United Kingdom milk producers. We have, as has been pointed out, the highest liquid milk consumption in Europe, if not in the world, and that would be threatened by the gradual erosion of doorstep delivery. It requires not more than 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. of consumers on a particular milk round to opt out and to buy cheaper milk, whatever its value or public health standards, at the corner shop or the supermarket, to make that milk round uneconomic. The other consumers would then be forced to shop for milk themselves.

It is deplorable that the Conservative Government have not previously taken more basic action to prevent the problem of surplus milk. In 1979, the Conservative election manifesto said: We will insist on a freeze in CAP prices for products in structural surplus. This should be maintained until the surpluses are eliminated. Those statements were deliberate untruths, unless of course the document was a forgery. I have had no chance to have the paper tested but if it was not a forgery, it was a document containing fraudulent claims. The British people have paid a heavy price in unemployment, lost production and so on for the purchase of what probably can best be seen as a work of fiction. They should be on their guard against imitations in the coming general election.

Milk producer prices have been increased, despite that Tory pledge, year by year since the Tories came to power. The Minister of Agriculture is responsible. Although he will say that prices have been lowered in real terms, the over-production has continued. Since the right hon. Gentleman took over as Minister, he has made no attempt whatsoever to achieve a prices freeze at any of the price reviews. In fact, the Minister almost boasts of the fact that he has not achieved a freeze. In his statement on the price proposals he said that the Government had pursued a policy of endeavouring to obtain prudent price increases." — [Official Report, 3 March 1983; Vol. 38, c. 386.] Finally, we need a different system for avoiding surpluses of milk and milk products not merely in this country but in Europe as a whole. Labour's policy, which will be put to the people during the election campaign, will aim to do that. The Bill is a stopgap measure until we can free ourselves finally from the expensive and unhealthy embrace of the common agricultural policy. We support it as a short-term measure but the only way to ensure a long-term solution to the problems of the milk consumer and producer is to return a Labour Government on 9 June.

5.12 pm
Mrs. Fenner

I am sure that the contribution of the hon. Member for Waltham Forest (Mr. Deakins) was more in the nature of an election speech in a marginal constituency than a contribution to a modest Bill which seeks to maintain the health standards of our milk. It is extraordinary to hear the hon. Member complaining about the cost of food in Europe when, under this Government, inflation has fallen and—perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain this to the people when he is stomping the country—the the price of food over the past 12 months increased by less than 1 per cent., which is the lowest rate since 1964. That is the result of Government policies and of our membership of the EC. I know that the Left wing of the Labour party insists in the Labour manifesto that Britain leave the EC, so everything that the hon. Gentleman says today reflects his prejudices; his slip is certainly showing.

I should like now to deal with the responsible contributions to the debate on this modest Bill. I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House who have spoken during the debate. I appreciate their concern about the Bill being debated during this accelerated and concertina-ed period before Parliament is dissolved. I am grateful for the questions they have asked about its provisions because they enable me to clarify some aspects of the Bill and, I hope, to reassure hon. Members on both sides of the House.

It is true that the Bill does not provide specifically for consultation, mainly because it may be necessary to make or vary regulations under the Bill, as a matter of urgency, to maintain effective control over imports. Formal consultation with interested parties might prevent that. But it will clearly be necessary to take account of all of the views of those concerned and I am sure that there will be the usual full discussion with interested parties before regulations are made under the Bill. The hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) made that point. This is an enabling Bill. The case will be made out in the regulations, on which discussions will take place. I trust that that will reassure hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) and others asked why there was a need for haste. It is necessary to move quickly. I pointed out in my opening comments—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield could not be present then—that the court's judgment was issued on 8 February. There is not too much haste about this—that was almost four months ago. If we did not comply quickly the question could be referred back to the court under article 171. In that event, our temporary regime could be overturned, leading to a free-for-all. I am sure that neither hon. Members nor the Dairy Trade Federation would want that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Spence) asked whether UHT milk carries foot and mouth disease and whether research had been carried out. The answer is no, as the temperatures used in the process would kill the disease.

Several hon. Members asked about doorstep deliveries; although this is not a health point, I can understand their concern. I should like to repeat that the judgment applies only to UHT milk, which tastes different from the fresh milk to which we are accustomed in this country, of which, I believe, we are the largest consumer in the Community. Hon. Members have made the point that UHT counts for such a small share—1 per cent.—of the United Kingdom market. I do not think that we should assume that our good liquid milk market will be swamped by imports. Even if UHT becomes available at a cut price through shops—the hon. Member for Waltham Forest portrayed a horrific picture of what would happen—it seems extremely likely that the majority of consumers would continue to prefer fresh pasteurised milk and, of course, the convenience of having it delivered regularly to the doorstep.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr)—I know that the right hon. Member for Down, South who always observes the courtesies of the House correctly, the hon. Members for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney), and for Harlow and my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton had to leave before the replies, but I understand very well their commitment in another room in this House to a Select Committee—asked about the animal health status of the Republic. I can assure them that the animal health status of the Republic is the same as Northern Ireland — that arrangements for import into Northern Ireland from Great Britain or other member states will of course take full account of animal health implications. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough asked whether the same health and hygiene requirements will apply to imports. As my right hon. Friend has said, and as I said in my opening speech, the aim is to provide for imports, provided that they meet the same health and hygiene requirements on which, in the interests of public health, we insist for production and processing of our own milk.

The hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes), who opened the debate for the Opposition, made a number of points which were basically the points raised by the Dairy Trade Federation. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about a certificate accompanying each assignment giving the details of quality, packaging and transport from the dairy. Such important points should be covered in certificates. The exact scope of the certificate will be determined when the discussions with the Commission and member states have been completed.

The quality requirement will apply to other liquids containing milk. The points to be covered by the certificates are still to be determined, but I can confirm —as I have already said several times—that the aim is to ensure that imports satisfy the same health and hygiene requirements imposed on our own production.

The hon. Gentleman asked about cooling and the word "use" in the bill. I assure him that "use" is already defined as including handling, treatment, storage, conveyance and sale—and that covers cooling and distribution. On his point about inspection and testing in the laboratory, it goes without saying that that will be carried out in appropriately equipped laboratories and by fully trained staff. It is not appropriate to discuss the manner of sampling and analysis in a Second Reading debate, but it will be defined in due course.

The hon. Gentleman queried the word "description" in the Bill. It covers his point about designation, type of milk, quality standards and other characteristics. On his point about registration, the proposed system of certification under clause 1(3)(c) will provide safeguards equivalent to those provided by a system of registration. Clause 1(3)(c) and (d) already enable us to provide that imported milk must be free from infection and contamination. Clause 1(5) makes it clear that it is an offence to import milk in contravention of those requirements.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

My hon. Friend said that legal action could be taken if milk is imported in contravention of the requirements. However, she must admit, by having said that, that the milk will have actually arrived in this country. Is there any way of monitoring the position to ensure that imported milk does not contravene any of the high standards of health and hygiene regulations currently effective in Britain? If she can give that assurance, she will answer many of the reservations of the milk producers and distributors.

Mrs. Fenner

I can only confirm that the purpose and content of the regulations is to secure those same high standards that we already have in the production of our milk.

The hon. Member for Durham asked about semi-skimmed milk. That is covered by the definition, which is the same as that in the Food and Drugs Act 1955.

I hope that I have answered in some detail the points raised by hon. Members. I trust that the House will now give the Bill a Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mrs. Fenner.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)

Under the terms of the Business of the House motion, to which the House has agreed, further proceedings on the Bill stand postponed.