HC Deb 19 November 1985 vol 87 cc225-46 10.12 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Selwyn Gummer)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's unnumbered explanatory memorandum dated 26th June 1985 on health and animal health problems affecting intra-community trade in heat-treated milk; endorses the view that trade in heat-treated milk should be subject to a Community regime in order to protect human and animal health; and therefore welcomes Council Directive No. 85/397/EEC of 5th August 1985 on health and animal health problems affecting intra-community trade in heat-treated milk. This evening's debate is, in a sense, a repeat performance of the one that we had when heat-treated milk was discussed on 20 February 1975.

It is the purpose of the United Kingdom to encourage the extension of the open market within the European Community so that we can compete with our products, not least agricultural products.

In 1975, when we first discussed the issue, our agriculture was still adapting to the common agricultural policy—a process which is now complete. This has brought problems to the industry and, recently, to the dairy sector in particular, but there have also been opportunities for British agriculture and for the many people in Britain whose jobs depend on agriculture.

When we entered the European Community, we looked forward—we accepted it at the time—to a long period in which we would be getting the technical arrangements right and so harmonise our agriculture that we could break down the technical barriers and be able to export to the rest of Europe. With milk, those changes have taken rather longer. As a result, national health and hygiene regimes have remained in force in the United Kingdom and in other member states. It is important that the health standards, which for so long have been a guarantee of the purity of British milk, should remain in force and that we should allow milk to be imported into this country only if its standard can be compared with out own.

A number of legal proceedings were taken against member states, including Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland. The Commission took the United Kingdom to the European Court in 1981 on the subject of UHT milk. More recently, the Commission has initiated proceedings against the United Kingdom on pasteurised milk. In its UHT defence, and in correspondence relating to pasteurised milk, the United Kingdom argued that the problems posed by different national regimes should not be left to the courts, but should be solved by the establishment of Community-wide rules governing the production and processing of milk. This would ensure in particular that the trade did not threaten public or animal health in importing member states.

We continue to believe that we should have the opportunity to compete with other nations in the European Community. However, that competition should be based on the same high standards for milk as we have pioneered in this country and of which we are proud. We want to have the opportunity to compete, but the competition must be within the health regulations that are so important to us.

In 1983, therefore, the United Kingdom welcomed indications that work on a Community regime, which had been in abeyance for five years, was to be resumed. Work proceeded under the Greek presidency, and subsequently under French, Irish and Italian chairmanship. Agreement was finally reached during the first month of the Luxembourg presidency, on 16 July 1985.

Our objective throughout the negotiations was very simple. It was to ensure that imports under a Community regime would not undermine our high health and hygiene standards.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

The right hon. Gentleman is making a meal of it.

Mr. Gummer

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to make jokes about the quality of milk in this country. He always reduces serious matters to jokes. I hope that his constituents will note that a joke of this kind about their health is part of his stock in trade. It was important, therefore, to ensure that the health of our population—

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I follow precisely my right hon. Friend's point that the health of the people of this country is vital and that milk makes a very significant contribution to that. Is it, or is it not, true that the people of Paris have to boil their milk, pasteurised or not, before they drink it?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is not very keen on foreigners, but we have ensured by these provisions that milk will be allowed to be imported into this country only from those countries whose standards of health are similar to our own. That applies equally to imported meat. We have always been concerned about ensuring the health of the British people. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that I am the last person who would want to cause health difficulties for him or for his children over imported foods.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

The right hon. Gentleman has referred on a number of occasions to the health of the nation. As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. MacKay), is sitting beside him, can he explain why the Scottish Office has introduced an amending regulation to remove two Scottish firms from the need to produce heat-treated milk? If the health of the nation is so important, including the health of the people of Scotland. why are they not being made to adhere to the heat-treated provisions which the Minister is seeking to introduce tonight?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not like to be misinterpreted. He meant that the whole discussion was about cream. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] It is important to be accurate about these matters. The hon. Gentleman also knows that there is to be a debate on this issue. We are discussing a very serious matter, and it is odd that the Opposition should not be concerned about the health of the nation.

Mr. Foulkes

Get on with it.

Mr. Gummer

It has taken the Government a great deal of time to win this battle in the European Community and to get so satisfactory an answer. The least the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) can do is listen to us while we discuss the health of the people. It is interesting to note that he objects to the intervention of his colleague the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing), for it is that hon. Gentleman, not this side of the House, who has held us up.

I should like to deal in some detail with the provisions of the directive. Its purpose is to lay down detailed public health and animal health requirements for the production and processing of heat-treated milk and the procedures that must apply when it is traded between member states. Although some of those matters are dealt with in individual articles, the most important provisions are in the chapters of annex A. These are the conditions that must be met on the production holding. They are similar in effect to our milk and dairy regulations which govern conditions on the farms in this country. Indeed, some of the wording of this chapter was provided by my Department.

Part C refers to a code of hygiene governing milk practice. This has still to be drawn up, and we shall be active in ensuring that its provisions are acceptable to the United Kingdom. Our purpose throughout has been to ensure that there is fair competition between countries meeting the same type of health regulations.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I hope that I am not interrupting the Minister ungraciously, but he appears to be skipping article 3A. Under "Originating herd", chapter VI of the directive states: The untreated milk must come from cows … (e) yielding at least two litres of milk a day". Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that our dairy industry was prosperous until the Conservative party came to office? We would not normally assume that a cow in Britain would produce only two litres a day, except at the end of her milking career.

Mr. Gummer

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that that would not normally be the measurement. We have laid down provisions which, if they are properly followed, will protect the health of our people. That is what we are about. It is odd that the hon. Gentleman objects to circumstances when a cow produces a small number of litres a day. What is important is not the number of litres, but whether that milk is healthy. The hon. Gentleman should not make that kind of point. No doubt other hon. Members will observe that chapters V and VI—I am happy for the hon. member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) to make a speech in which he can cover those matters—

Mr. Hardy


Mr. Gummer

—include columns headed "Step 1" and "Step 2". This is the important point about this proposal. These provisions make a significant change in what might previously have been thought to be the type of regulations that were to be laid down.

During the negotiations it became clear that the high standards that the United Kingdom wanted to see in the directive could not be achieved by all member states, and this threatened to deadlock the attempt to have a Europe-wide decision. We have achieved a major breakthrough. There will be two successive stages—step 1, incorporating standards that all member states could achieve, and step 2, incorporating standards achieved by a minority of member states, including the United Kingdom.

When the directive comes into effect on 1 January 1989, step 1 standards will apply to begin with, but the higher step 2 standards will be progressively introduced —first, in respect of milk for direct human consumption, on 1 April 1990, and then in respect of all milk, on I January 1993 or possibly 1 January 1995. I hope that the House will note that point. It means that we shall be able to have trade within the Community among those countries which have the higher standards, from the point at which they have them. It is Britain's influence within the Community that will have raised the health and milk standards.

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

How near is the United Kingdom's industry to achieving step 2 standards? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is to the advantage of the United Kingdom's industry to go to step 2 standards sooner rather than later, and not wait until the starting dates set out in article 16?

Mr. Gummer

Step 2 standards have already been achieved by a few states, including ourselves. Our industry will not have to make changes to meet those standards, but other countries will because they are not yet universal within the Community. That is one of the achievements that we have sought to bring about by our membership of the Community. We have sought to raise the European standards where they are higher in this country, and to provide fair competition. We should not be defensive about that. We should be proud that that is what we have achieved in the negotiations.

That provision recognises our higher standards and obliges others to meet them in due course, but it would have left the United Kingdom exposed to imports of lower quality milk during the transitional period. Our prime objective was to ensure that that could not happen.

At the meeting of Agriculture Ministers on 16 July this year, our partners finally accepted that member states already applying step 2 microbiological standards to their domestic products should be entitled to apply those standards to imports without any transitional period. We can therefore apply our standards to imports, and ultimately they will become the Community's standards.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

Will my right hon. Friend clarify the position on double pasteurisation? As I understand it, that is prevented in inter-Community trade. That process is forbidden in Scotland and Ulster, but is allowed in England and Wales. Will he clarify the Government's intentions?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that the fact that double pasteurisation is allowed in England and Wales, but not in the north of Ireland and Scotland, shows that there is some argument about its precise purpose. Because we want to meet the needs of the industry, we have agreed that before making the final regulations under the directive we shall further consult the industry to decide whether double pasteurisation should be banned in the rest of the United Kingdom, or whether we should continue to allow it. Double pasteurisation is important. It is linked to some of the health problems that have been mentioned by the Milk Marketing Board.

Mr. Foulkes

Read on.

Mr. Gummer

I shall read as much as is necessary to clarify this important matter. Given the health standards, it was obviously a major concession to the United Kingdom for the rest of the Community to accept that we had a standard which the Community wished ultimately to impose upon the whole of the Community. We explained that in a letter to the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee. That is why my right hon. Friend decided that, in the national interest, he had to agree to the directive, notwithstanding the recommendation that the draft should be debated. I hope that hon. Members, whatever view they have, will agree that it was clearly a successful negotiation. It was right for us to agree rather than to allow the matter to continue in abeyance.

The directive takes effect on 1 January 1989. It provides for trade to be strictly controlled. Exporting member states will be required to certify that individual consignments comply with all the provisions of the directive. Certificates will be carefully checked on arrival in this country. If there are grounds for suspicion, individual consignments will be held for testing, and milk may be turned back if necessary. In case of disagreement, reference may be made to the Commission.

Mr. Foulkes

I am grateful for the fact that the Minister is now on the main subject. Which ports will be designated as entry ports? Clearly not every port will have the right facilities or the people qualified to deal with the work that he has been describing.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman was perhaps wrong to suggest that the standards of health are not as important as the point to which he refers. Milk will be able to come through all those ports which are open to milk delivery. It will not be as for the UHT arrangements. There will be an open opportunity for milk to come in. If the amount of milk that comes in corresponds with the amount that comes in under the UHT arrangements, I doubt whether many ports will make much money out of it.

After all the worries that were expressed when we talked about UHT, the actual amount of milk that ultimately came in was small.[Interruption.] It really is a miserable life for members of the Opposition. First of all, they complained before we did it that it would be disastrous, ghastly and awful. Then we did it and UHT accounts for just 0.03 of the liquid milk market. Then they say, "Of course, it will get worse." It is terrible being a member of the Labour party, because things are always going to get worse. Given the fact of its history and experience, I understand why Opposition Members feel that way.

The industry is happy about the proposals we have put forward. Of course, people would prefer not to have competition: that is the nature of any of us. The industry is happy with the proposals and feel that we are protecting the health of the nation in a proper way. The proposals will enable us to have the kind of competition and opportunities that we expect from the European Community.

I accept that hon. Members are concerned about the economic implications—a concern expressed by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley—of allowing imports of pasteurised milk, whether as a result of the directive or as a result of court proceedings. I recognise that there is special concern about doorstep deliveries. That is a service which is highly valued, both by the consumer and by the large number of people employed in it. No one is a greater supporter of that than I am. It is part of our national life and a system which we recognise. We feared or we were told we ought to fear that it would be undermined by the changes made earlier on. That has not been the case, and I do not believe it will be the case. There is no question of undermining the doorstep delivery service. It will continue because the consumer likes it.

It works because people want it and it will continue to work.

I recall the fears expressed when arrangements were made some two years ago to allow the import of UHT and sterilised milk. Those fears have proved groundless. As I have mentioned, the total amount is 0.03 per cent. of the liquid market, and quite a lot of that is small catering packs of the kind that have nothing to do with doorstep deliveries. This is not going to be a worry. If that is not a worry with UHT one would not expect it to be a worry with pasteurised fresh milk which is liable to go off much more quickly than longlife milk.

These factors will work in favour of the domestic product and will allow our industry to compete effectively against imports. Already we have had people requesting information about how they might use the opportunities to export to other members of the European Economic Community. We have consulted with great care the National Farmers Union, the Milk Marketing Board and the Dairy Trade Federation, and their opposite numbers in Scotland and Northern Ireland. They accepted that, faced with legal proceedings and with the position in the Community, our best course was to negotiate for a directive. In general, this directive has been widely accepted as meeting all the requirements. There is no major issue on which those bodies feel we have failed them in our negotiations.

I hope that the House will feel that this motion is worth endorsing and that it is an opportunity rather than a threat for British trade. It is another example of how the European Economic Community can work for the benefit of us all.

10.35 pm
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I welcome the Minister to our debates. Some kind souls have suggested that he has been demoted. I believe that responsibility for one of the largest industries in this nation is extremely important, and I sincerely congratulate him on his appointment.

I thank the Minister for his explanation of our future trade in heat-treated milk. As he acknowledged, this measure will eventually open all our ports to imports of pasteurised milk. As most of the liquid milk sold in the United Kingdom is heat treated, the House should recognise the possible scale of the impact of this measure on our dairy industry, and especially on our doorstep delivery system.

The final stage of the operation will be in January 1993. I was surprised to hear the Minister refer to 1995, and perhaps he could explain that. The major part of the measure will be implemented in January 1989. That is still three years away, but we must not be complacent about that. I hope that the House, the Minister and the industry are aware of the implications of the measure.

In a sense, the pass was sold in 1983 when the Government accepted imports of UHT milk. It is relevant to consider some of the issues raised in the debate on that—

Mr. Colin Shepherd

The judgment of the European Court makes it clear that the pass was sold many years before 1983, when the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) sold the pass with UHT cream.

Mr. Home Robertson

The decision was taken in this House by this Government. I remember trying to take part in the debate, but I failed to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is when the pass was sold.

Many of us were acutely concerned that imports of UHT milk at artificially low prices would flood into British supermarkets and wreck our excellent doorstep delivery system. As the Minister said, that has not come to pass. We usually doubt the judgment of the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker). However, when he was Minister he said that French UHT milk was disgusting and that his dog would not drink it. Even if we cannot trust the judgment of the right hon. Gentleman, we have at least accepted the judgment of his dog, and the UHT bonanza in our supermarkets has not materialised.

It would be interesting to consider what has happened with UHT imports. During the first half of 1985, about 900 tonnes—only 40 containers—of UHT and sterilised milk entered Britain. As the Minister said, the importers' share of the British market is 0.03 per cent., and much of that is sterilised skimmed milk from Belgium.

There are one or two interesting elements in that tiny share of British trade. A major contract is between British Airways and a German supplier of catering portions of UHT milk. If British Airways wants us to fly the flag, it should pay more attention to the flag on the milk that it serves to its passengers.

It is not only British Airways that buys this milk. Agra Europe stated on 26 April: the UK Minister of Agriculture, Michael Jopling, seems to have allowed his Ministry in London to put him in rather an embarrassing position. Not content with cancelling the daily milk delivery to his Whitehall Place offices, the Ministry, supplied through the Department of the Environment, has been caught buying in imported UHT milk for its Horseferry Road offices where a large proportion of London-based Ministry staff work … The matter is compounded further since it is understood that Ministry officials were aware some time ago that this use of imported supplies was taking place yet measures to change the arrangements do not appear to have been taken. That is no big thing, but perhaps people buying milk might usefully watch for the weasel words "standardised whole milk" on packages because I understand that that means that the milk has been imported.

Of course, we recognise that consumers could benefit from a more competitive market. Competition comes in various forms and we are determined that the long-term security of the British dairy industry should not be put in jeopardy by any measure taken by this or any other Government. That includes the need to look after the longterm interests of dairy farmers as well as of the dairy trade.

I understand that the Dairy Trade Federation, the National Farmers Union, the Milk Marketing Board and the Consumers Association all support the measures, subject to understandable safeguards. It says much for the confidence of the dairy industry and dairy farmers that they feel that they can cope with the type of competition that is involved. I hope that the Minister is right in expressing the hope that they succeed in exporting dairy produce in due course. They have had a tough time over the past year with the imposition of dairy quotas and they are entitled to expect proper policing of any import trade. I hope that we will get undertakings to that effect tonight.

There must be power to enforce the provisions for the standard of imported milk. That is vital not only in fairness to British producers, whose standards are second to none, as the Minister has acknowledged, but to protect public health and our fine animal health record.

I am not 100 per cent. confident that the terms of the directive provide adequate safeguards. For example, article 5(1) says: Each Member State shall draw up a list of its approved milk-treatment establishments and, in so far as they are concerned with intra-Community trade in heat-treated milk, a list of approved collection centres and standardization centres, each such establishment or centre having an approval number. The Member States shall send those lists to the other member States and to the Commission. No Member State shall approve an establishment or centre unless compliance with this Directive is assured. So far, so good. But in article 5(3) we find that enforcement action against defaulters from such standards is far from straightforward: Where a Member State considers in particular after carrying out a check or inspection provided for in Article 7(1) and (2), that the provisions governing approval are not being, or have ceased to be, observed in an establishment or centre in another Member State, it shall inform the competent central authority of that State accordingly. It says "inform"; there is no enforcement at that stage: That authority shall take all necessary measures, which may include the withdrawal of approval,"— may, not shall— and notify the competent central authority of the first Member State of the decisions taken and the reasons for such decisions. I could continue. There seem to be many ways out—

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

The hon. Gentleman has referred to difficulty about the enforcement procedure. if he reads article 7, he will see that a member state that is concerned about the purity of the milk has a right to reject the consignment.

Mr. Home Robertson

It can reject individual consignments, having tested them, but having identified from one consignment that there is a source of milk which is of doubtful hygiene, it still has to continue testing every consignment. If it is established that milk being imported is not up to the requisite standard, it should be possible to take action to prevent further imports from that source.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)


Mr. Home Robertson

I want to get on.

I could quote as many details as the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) likes, but obviously a protracted process will be necessary to try to deal with the problems. the machinery for blocking sources of potentially unhealthy milk is ponderous. it is wide open to manipulation, litigation and prevarication. That is a matter for legitimate concern.

I move from the question of human health to that of animal health and the emotive subject of foot and mouth disease. Article 12 says: A Member State may take the following measures with due regard for the general provisions of the Treaty: (a) in the event of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in another Member State, it may temporarily prohibit or restrict the introduction into its territory of pasteurized milk obtained in an approved establishment which collects untreated milk in the protection area". I do not want any ifs or buts about this issue. If there is an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in any member state, Britain should be empowered to stop all further imports from that source until that member state is declared clear. I pointed out that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was using UHT milk imported from Germany earlier this year. There was an outbreak of foot and mouth in Germany during last year. Powers to control such trade should exist. May we have clear undertakings from the Government on that?

An interesting detailed point was raised by the Select Committee on European Legislation. There seems to be some question about the origins of the powers under which the directive has been implemented. It seems that they date back to 1972, according to the Select Committee's memorandum. That suggests that the whole package could be challenged in the European Court at a future date. I trust that the Government are satisfied on that count.

I wish to press the Minister on the question of the relationship between this directive and the case which is currently before the European Court concerning the present ban on pasteurised milk imports into the United Kingdom on health grounds. We support that ban because of the overriding need to protect public health and maintain our excellent record on animal health.

The timetable set out in this directive is acceptable to the trade, and I am sure that it will be acceptable to hon. Members. That timetable will provide time for prospective exporters in other countries to bring their health and hygiene standards up to those now in effect in the United Kingdom, and it gives us time to satisfy ourselves that that has been achieved.

I am worried lest any decision by the European Court to speed up that timetable by overruling the present ban on imports into the United Kingdom before January 1989 could cause problems. Indeed, it could be a potential threat to public and animal health in this country. The Government will lodge their defence at the European Court next week and, as I said, we support them. However, in view of this agreed package, the directive should render redundant the court action that is being taken by the Commission against the United Kingdom. It would be absurd if this agreed timetable, based on clearly understood health standards, were to be superseded by an accelerated timetable imposed by the European Court.

We still have misgivings about the general proposal of unrestricted trade in milk, but we recognise that this is probably as good a package as the Government could hope to get in present circumstances. We shall accept the motion on the clear understanding that the Government will give top priority at all times to the protection of the health of our people and our livestock and on the further understanding that the Government will be prepared to take all necessary steps to ensure fair trading conditions for the British dairy industry.

10.48 pm
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

I am sure that the House welcomes the qualified welcome that the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) gave the directive. The directive presages an important change in the law and practice in the United Kingdom. As from 1989, pasteurised milk from EC countries can be admitted. The converse is also true—we will be able to export pasteurised milk to EC countries.

I hope that the dairy industry regards this as a challenge. The House is entitled to take some comfort from the fact that the Dairy Trade Federation has given the directive qualified support, as has the Milk Marketing Board. The United Kingdom dairy industry should regard this as an opportunity to export milk. The Government have given British agriculture considerable encouragement to export its products. I hope that the industry will take advantage of the directive to dispose of some of the surpluses, that will no doubt exist, by selling into Europe.

The directive constitutes a threat as well as a challenge. It could threaten health. I had the privilege of serving on the Select Committee on Agriculture in the previous Parliament. Although most French producers operate in circumstances similar to those found here—the co-operatives of Normandy produce to a very high standard—some of the milk produced abroad do not comply with the high health standards rightly required of United Kingdom producers. We must therefore envisage the possibility of milk that does not comply to our standards being imported.

That hazard is accentuated by our having surpluses. It would be surprising if EC producers did not try to export to the United Kingdom milk that does not comply with the standards that we rightly require of our producers. It is important that the Government use articles 5 and 7 rigorously. The hon. Member for East Lothian had some criticisms of article 5, which I thought a slightly unfair. Although the machinery is somewhat cumbersome it is certain in that imposes mandatory duties on the central authority to comply with the directive.

The Government must be willing to use article 7 rigorously. If they make it clear to EC producers that article 7 will be invoked and rigorously applied when necessary, the risk of dumping or of unhygienic milk being imported will be reduced dramatically.

This is a desirable step forward. It is a challenge for the United Kingdom industry. I hope that the consequences of that challenge will be beneficial in terms of price and service.

Mr. Marlow

My hon. Friend and I had an interesting discussion with our hon. Friend the Minister about UHT milk, little of which is coming in. This is a different commodity as it tastes like milk and not like the other stuff.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

What is the other stuff?

Mr. Marlow

UHT. My hon. Friend the Minister said that the milk we are discussing is more perishable and therefore less marketable. Would my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) give his impression of how the directive will affect imports to the United Kingdom?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend asks what effect the importation of pasteurised milk will have on the United Kingdom. I doubt whether too great a volume will be imported because the product is perishable. If it is imported in substantial quantities, the chances are that the result will be beneficial. The United Kingdom industry has the advantage of being on site. I do not see why the United Kingdom industry should not be able to meet the challenge, both in terms of price and service. I suspect that if there is a serious attempt to import quantities of pasteurised milk from the EEC into the United Kingdom, that threat will be met by our producers with improved services and prices. The consequence will therefore be beneficial.

This is a challenge to which the United Kingdom dairy industry can properly rise, and it is to be welcomed. There are such problems as hazards to health and dumping, but they can be properly met by invoking the provisions of articles 5 and 7.

Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

We now realise that the hon. Gentleman is a strong advocate of the export to the EEC of milk from this country. Is it not about time that we should try to export more of our milk products to other countries outside the EEC?

Mr Hogg

One is always in favour of exporting. The hon. Gentleman knows much about agriculture, and he must bear in mind the fact that milk products other than UHT ones have a fairly limited shelf life. Therefore, the ability to export, rather than in dried or UHT form is limited. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that we should encourage the export of agricultural products—

Mr. Marlow

Like cheese and butter.

Mr. Hogg

Those are good cases, but there is an international surplus in them, so there is a difficulty about exporting.

The Government have a fine record of encouraging the export of agricultural products, and we should give further emphasis to that. To the extent to which the directive encourages that, there is an additional reason to welcome it.

10.56 pm
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

We welcome the motion only on the basis of the points that I shall make. First, we must have proper enforcement of standards for heat-treated milk to protect the health of humans and animals. There are arguments in favour of the United Kingdom standards being vigorously defended in the contest against the ban in the European Court. Before and after the directive is implemented, the United Kingdom milk industry must be committed to an aggressive approach in the market place. It is vital that our milk is marketed aggressively in the next three years, before the pasteurised imported milk comes in. We can afford no complacency whatsoever on this issue.

Our farmers have a great deal at stake, particularly after the difficult times over the past two or three years. The value of the milk industry to the United Kingdom is considerable—some £2.7 billion, with 75,000 people employed in it. Any undermining of it would put us in a serious situation.

Therefore, we must do all that we can to ensure that the health requirements, both human and animal, are strictly adhered to. There must be no wavering by the Government. We require absolute assurances and undertakings from the Minister on these issues.

Why has not the directive been brought to Parliament before? It was before the Council of Ministers on 15 and 16 July. There is a need for assurance that these products will be properly tested at the Channel ports and that there are sufficient personnel available to do it. The policing of the entry of these products must be rigorous. We have already seen what has happened as a result of the reduction of customs officers dealing with other imported products, and we do not want that to happen in this case.

We must also consider the probability of a fixed link under the Channel coming in at a similar time as the final part of the regulation comes into being. How will the fixed link be policed? How will the Minister ensure that the testing is adequate?

Mr. Marlow

This is an important debate, and it is interesting that the fixed link has been brought into it. Is the hon. Gentleman speaking on behalf of the Liberal party, or the Liberal party and the Social Democratic party? When he speaks, does he always speak on behalf of the Liberal party, or the Liberal party and the SDP? What is the view of the Liberal party on the Channel tunnel?

Mr. Livsey

Tonight I am speaking on behalf of the alliance.

There will be an awkward situation in relation to the fixed link and in ensuring that the testing is adequate. We want to be reassured about that.

When considering the European Court case, we trust that the Government will be firm in insisting that we proceed under the timetable in the directive, and that that first step will not take place until 1 January 1989. The European Commission has no case to answer in referring our ban to the court. How can we implement the directive in any case until that timetable has been gone through?

There is an important environmental case to be made about the importing of pasteurised milk. Reference to tankers is made in the directive, but tonight we have not discussed the probability of milk coming into this country in disposable cartons, whereas most of our milk is delivered on the doorstep in milk bottles. Will such disposable cartons come in? Will we do something about their control? How will we test the milk coming in in individual cartons? Will proper testing be carried out? We must ensure that the labelling of the milk is recognizable to the consumer—

Mr. Douglas Hogg

The label has "milk" on it.

Mr. Livsey

—showing whether the milk has been imported. With Spanish, French or Dutch milk coming in, will the labels show the country of origin? It is most important that it is recognisable.

On the continent it is common practice to mix milks and add butter fat. Therefore, we must ensure that there is adequate labelling stating what type of milk it is—whether it has added butter fat or is mixed milk of different origins. Hon. Members have said how important doorstep deliveries are. We know that our own silver top milk has not been tampered with; it is natural milk. Some of the milk coming in from the continent will be of a mixed type. Standardised milk must be labelled as such and there must be adequate food labelling whether it is for milk or other foods. That is extremely important.

I hope that the Minister will ensure that we receive assurances on these points in spite of the difficulties that Government Members have given me while I have been speaking. I hope that the Minister will answer my points and will give me assurances on them.

11.7 pm

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

I hope that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) will forgive me if I do not comment on his speech.

It is rare to receive three representations on a matter such as this—from the Milk Marketing Board, the Dairy Trade Federation and the National Farmers Union. These representations are essentially complimentary and constructive and generally set out a position of contentment.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and his predecessor, who is now Chief Secretary to the Treasury in penance for his success at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I pay tribute also to the Ministry's team because these agreements are constructed on hours of patient work by those behind the scenes who gradually put the bits together and eventually produce a whole package, and not on diktat. This is an occasion for compliments just as it is an occasion for the recognition of a challenge, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). We have a confidence in milk which we take for granted. That confidence has been built up over the years. It stems from the fact that we do not become sick from drinking milk, and when we receive it on our doorsteps it is in good nick, being fresh and wholesome. That is a proud track record for the industry, which in some of its manifestations has made representations to us. That is the base from which we must work at all times, as we progress to 1989 and on to 1990 and 1993.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will be kind enough to bring us up to date on the state of play in the present court case. It would be wrong for us to be at a disadvantage at any time before 1989, when everybody else will have, or should have, his act in order. We do not want to be the only ones playing the game.

I was reassured by the reply of my right hon. Friend the Minister to my earlier intervention on the question of step 2—I must say that the jargon is frightful. Nevertheless, I think that the public will be reassured that our standards are so high. I shall prod my right hon. Friend slightly on double pasteurisation which some hon. Members have already mentioned. It is a valid and important issue. When we debated the matter of UHT milk prior to 1983 it was made clear that two important aspects of milk were the microbiological content and the solid content. It was clearly stated that there was documented evidence of solids creeping into milk on the continent. I have seen milk being taken to dairies on the continent on the back of bicycles, and I want to ensure that there are no undesirable manurial solids entering our milk.

The directive provides clearly that there should be single pasteurisation for intra-Community trade, but there is a loophole that allows the doubling up of pasteurisation. That means that we could receive milk which has been pasteurised unsatisfactorily and repasteurised in Britian. The repasteurisation will deal with microbiological considerations but not those directed to solid content. I advocate strongly that we close the loophole, unify the procedures and make it clear that we do not agree with double pasteurisation because of the attendant risks.

There are some who are concerned about the long-term effect on the liquid milk premium of the measures that are before us. We do not know yet how much spare milk is floating around the Community, and nor do we know how attractive it will be to have that milk directed towards the liquid milk market in the United Kingdom The liquid milk premium could be a positive disincentive for the United Kingdom industry. I cannot find anyone in the industry who is able to address himself to the issue, but I should like to know that it is being considered. Is there a case for reconsidering the marketing strategy for milk in the United Kingdom as a consequence of full intra-Community trade? I underline the remark of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham that the United Kingdom dairy industry is faced with a challenge. The constructive way in which the problem has been approached gives one confidence that we shall see a strong United Kingdom dairy industry in future that is able to take advantage of its internal sales opportunities and external opportunities. I hope very much that the industry will proceed in that direction.

11.12 pm
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Mem'Der for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) for his indulgence in allowing me to say a few words from the Back Benches. I have a double interest in the matter. First, like my hon. Friend, I represent a rural constituency, and there are not too many of my right hon. and hon. Friends in that position—

Mr. Home Robertson


Mr. Foulkes

—although there will be after the next general election. Secondly, and equally important in this context, I am a Co-operative party sponsored Member. I hope that Conservative Members will recognise that Labour Members declare their interests, unlike some of them.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) was assailed and assaulted by Conservative rowdies—[Interruption.] I do not think that many of them have been drinking milk today. The hon. Gentleman received that treatment while quoting some statistics to show The importance of the dairy industry, and he was right to do so. It should be remembered that 33 million pints of milk are drunk every day and that 98 per cent. of householders use fresh milk. More important, 80 per cent. of that fresh milk is delivered daily to the doorstep. That is a unique and valuable service in which the Co-operative movement plays a great and important part.

Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Is it not a fact that in Scotland, which he represents, there are more bottles of milk in shops than on doorsteps?

Mr. Foulkes

I represent only part of Scotland, but Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley is a large constituency of about 800 sq miles. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that in England the Co-operative societies play an even greater part in delivering milk than they do further north. The hon. Gentleman described me as his hon. Friend in a moment of unparalleled generosity. As someone who has emigrated south, he will be aware of the situation on both sides of the border. Milk represents 9 per cent. of the retail food price index. That is a large percentage, and it is important to keep down the price of milk. It is the largest single item.

I have three points to make to the Minister. I assure him that I was not intending to imply that health aspects are not important when I made my sedentary intervention. I was anxious that he should get down to the nitty-gritty of the subject.

The hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) talked about Britain exporting milk. As his hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) will tell him, we are now in a crazy situation. Because we have been adhering strictly to quotas while other countries have not, we are having to import milk products. We are now getting German cheddar in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Colin Shepherd

The import of cheddar has nothing to do with quotas. Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House which countries have been flouting their quota allocations in such a ridiculous manner in the past year?

Mr. Foulkes

The Minister is in the best position to name them. I shall name them on another occasion, but it is not my immediate subject. [Interruption.] It appears that some hon. Members believe them to be the French and the Irish, but I shall leave that matter and deal with my three points.

First, I want to underline the point made by hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian concerning the court decision. If the court decision goes through, without these provisions we shall have unrestricted imports. The Minister did not seem to deal with the question in detail in his introductory remarks. I hope that he will deal with it in his reply.

My second point is the one that I raised in my intervention in regard to the ports. I do not believe that the Minister has thought about it. At least, he did not appear to have done so. It is inconceivable, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor said, that every port could have the right kind of facilities and the people properly qualified to check the certificates and be able to test the milk if that is necessary. It involves substantial skills and equipment, and I cannot see that it can be done in every port throughout the United Kingdom at which milk might enter.

My third point relates to enforcement. I wish to underline, on behalf of the Co-operative movement in particular, that the Dairy Trade Federation and the Co-operative movement are concerned about enforcement and wish to see it in operation all over Europe. I do not see how we can know exactly what is happening on every farm in every part of Europe, but we need to ensure that the system is being operated strictly in all the other countries, because it will not be possible to test all the consignments in every way.

Mr. Marlow

I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that it is very difficult to ensure that the rules and regulations are properly applied in European countries. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been following the problems with olive oil in Italy. The supervision of the olive oil regime is carried out by the Italian authorities. They do it by using the co-operatives in Italy. The operation is a complete shambles. Similarly, how do we know that milk hygiene can be properly supervised in France? There are grave risks involved.

Mr. Foulkes

I must concede that I do not spend all my working hours studying the problems of the olive oil industry in Italy, but the hon. Gentleman's point should be borne in mind.

The Dairy Trade Federation, the Co-operative movement and others believe that if there were to be one serious illness as a result of a contaminated batch of milk arriving from the continent of Europe, it would harm not only the name of imported milk but that of milk generally, and could cause irreparable harm to our dairy trade in the United Kingdom.

I represent the Co-operative movement, which covers one quarter of the United Kingdom dairy trade. It is the only national dairy movement, and it has a very good record. It is socially committed and it is also run on commercial lines. It plays a very active part in the dairy trade as well as in the Dairy Trade Federation. The Co-operative movement welcomes the directive, save for the cautionary questions that I have asked on its behalf.

11.20 pm
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) made a typically flamboyant speech, but he has raised a number of pertinent issues to which I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will respond.

Reference has been made to the doorstep delivery. Every hon. Member believes that this is vital not only to the dairy trade but to the people of this country. It provides a social service which has been supported by all hon. Members for a very long time. Reference has also been made to animal and consumer health, both of which are very important. However, what concerns me most is the imminent hearing in the European Court.

The House is debating a directive that has been agreed by the Ministers of all the countries that comprise the European Community. Therefore, it is presumed that if it is passed by the Governments of all the members of the Community the contents of the directive will be binding upon all its members. However, I understand that a European Court decision might lead to a variation in the terms of the directive.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will say what the position is. In his opening speech he did not provide us with information which will enable us to decide whether the directive will be binding upon all Community members, or whether a European Court decision will vary the terms of the directive. If the decision of the European Court went against us and if the terms of the directive were thereby changed, we should be placed in a very difficult position. Once again the United Kingdom will be the fall guy.

The dairy industry is very important in my constituency. It is a very substantial employer. The milk quotas have caused considerable hardship. However, there has been considerable investment in the industry since quotas were introduced. It is vitally important for the United Kingdom, the Dairy Trade Federation, the Milk Marketing Board and the National Farmers Union to know where they stand, should the decision of the European Court go against them. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend will be able to answer this question, but it is the linchpin of the debate. We have referred to many other peripheral matters: to whether we shall be able to test and monitor adequately milk imports at the ports of entry. The basis of the directive is agreed by the Dairy Trade Federation, the Milk Marketing Board—with reservations—and the NFU. It would not be sensible for any hon. Member to disagree with bodies which do an excellent job in representing the diary trade in its widest context. They are deeply concerned about this court matter. The NFU states: The NFU supports the Government's defence of the Court case. We believe that pasteuriifed milk imports are only acceptable if rigorous hygiene standards have been applied to the milk and if the competition is fair. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will do his utmost to ensure that competition in the Community is fair to the United Kingdom. The NFU states: However, the EC Commission has initiated proceedings against the ban and if this case is lost it is possible that amendments will have to be made to the UK's milk importation regulations before the Directive comes into operation. If that matter can be clarified, I believe that my right hon. Friend will carry the House with him in agreeing that the directive is acceptable. If that assurance can be given, I shall be happy to accept it. I believe that it will be beneficial.

11.26 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

This subject has bedevilled the EEC for some years. It has illustrated the difficulty in dealing with EEC matters between those who have argued the classic position of the benefits that everyone can gain from free trade in goods and services and those who have argued about the need to protect national interests. By forcing our Government to take perfectly justifiable measures over some years to protect our national interests with respect to health and the importation of milk, other countries have been given a bargaining point and a basis upon which to impose their own restrictive measures. From that viewpoint, this has been a much more important measure than if it were seen only in the domestic context. It has provided the basis—in the political sphere, if in no other—for a trade-off of one restrictive measure for another. It has been important to resolve this issue.

The proposal is a relevant, clever and timely solution to the problem and hon. Members should be grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister. Will my right hon. Friend confirm the Government's intentions to apply some of the directive's provisions with the utmost rigour? I was comforted to see the preamble state: a Member State must be able to refuse entry into free circulation within its territory in the case of heat-treated milk from another Member State where it has been found that that milk does not satisfy the provisions of this Directive". That appears to enshrine in the directive the measures that we have sought to take and for which we have been taken to the European Court.

The directive is a great step forward. It should provide great comfort to those who in the past have been unhappy about the basis on which milk products were introduced into Britain. It provides our Government with a firmer basis on which to act to protect our citizens and consumers. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will emphasise that aspect and give further reassurance to our consumers based on this element in the directive.

Article 5 states: the Member States may be authorized…to prohibit provisionally the introduction into their territories of heat-treated milk from that establishment. I think that that answers the point made by the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). It illustrates that there are ample provisions in the directive to enable prompt and effective action to be taken, should a Government decide to do so. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will emphasise that point so that we may all be even happier to lend our support to the measure and to give our assurances to the consumers.

It is in that spirit that I should like to add my voice to those of my colleagues who have welcomed this measure. I hope that it will now put behind us the futile and needless disputes of the past so that we can move foward to a regulated and controlled trade, to the benefit of all consumers.

Mr. Gummer

With persmission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am happy to answer some of the questions that have been asked. If I miss any, I can write to the hon. Members involved.

I was rather surprised by the way in which the Opposition discussed this measure. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), who has not been without criticism of the way in which the European Community operates—I believe that I can say that without being unfair—has correctly said that the directive provides a good answer to a problem. I am sorry that the hon. Member for East Lothiam (Mr. Home Robertson) could not say the same. I am pleased that he said that our dairy farmers are confident, and I am sure that this is the result of knowing that they are represented by a Government who stand up for them. I am sure that they would not be as confident had they him in tow.

The second point that the hon. Gentleman mentioned was what he called an emotive and important issue. This issue does not need to be emotive. It should be logical. It is the attempt to include emotion which disfigured the Opposition's argument.

We have considered the problem logically and we have produced a logical answer. We shall enforce the arrangement with the vigour that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire would expect, and that is why we have insisted upon the points that he mentioned.

I was asked what bearing the directive would have on the court case. The Government had hoped that the Commission would withdraw its case when we reached what seemed to us to be the sensible answer. That is why we wanted this answer and fought for it. It is why we felt that there was no need for the case. The Commission has applied to the court and does not seem inclined to withdraw the case. We shall therefore defend the case with the vigour and rigour that my hon. Friends would expect. We have a strong argument, because whatever happens it would not be sensible to implement a short-term national arrangement before the Community's full arrangement comes into operation.

No one need worry that the court could affect the terms of an agreed directive. That cannot happen, but we do not want an untidy period between the court's decision and when the directive comes into effect. That is why we shall fight the case hard. We shall expect the court to listen carefully to our case, because it is right.

I agree with the anxiety about health felt by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). There is no question but that the Government believe that health is important. That is what I was saying when the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) interrupted me and complained that I went on about it. He then made it one of his three main points. It is a pity that he interrupted. Had he not interrupted, we could have got on more quickly.

I found some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) difficult to follow. I understood that the party that he represents is in favour of our membership of the European Community. Anyone present during the debate would have found that difficult to detect. I hope that he will sort out whom and which policies he represents. He first made a comment about enforcement, with which we would all agree. He then said that we had no reason to be complacent, and we then heard the usual worry that somehow everyone else would do well but we would not and how awful that would be. Why can we not say that our industry is good and one of which we are proud and that there is no reason why it cannot sell its products? Why should we constantly believe that other people are beating us? It seems to be part of the Opposition's stock in trade to write down our chances and to complain about our industry instead of showing that we have an opportunity to win.

We had an interesting argument about why the directive had not been brought to the House earlier. We could not discuss it during the summer recess and that was followed by the Queen's Speech, which many would say was marginally more important than this matter. The directive has been brought to the House about as quickly as it was possible for us to bring it forward. I am sure that when the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor has been here longer, he will not make such unfair comments.

Mr. Livsey


Mr. Gummer

That was not a condescending comment. It was meant to be a polite comment, but if the hon. Gentleman thinks that it was impolite, I shall withdraw it immediately.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the fixed link. I must admit that at that point I was completely lost. I could not understand whether he was talking about the link between him and his SDP allies. That is the most unfixed link I know.

I cannot believe that the problems involved in the directive are made worse by any consideration of the nature of the Channel tunnel. The question is whether we can stand up to full, fair, decent competition. If the hon. Gentleman, who represents the Liberal party and its allies for the moment, fears that we cannot stand up to full and fair competition, he casts a gross calumny against the industry, which has said throughout that we can stand up to such competition.

Mr. Livsey

I referred to a fixed link in terms of a Channel tunnel link and all the problems that that will bring with it. It was a serious point which should be taken extremely seriously.

The points that I made were serious. Hon. Members may have had difficulty in hearing them because of the constant interruptions, particularly by the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), who was trying to undermine my argument. I was making serious points and the Minister should take them in that spirit.

Mr. Gummer

I am happy to take the hon. Gentleman's point in the spirit of seriousness, but I do not believe it to be a serious point. I cannot understand what difference the fixed link makes. The issue is whether we can stand up to competition. The industry says that as long as the competition is fair and the health regulations are equal, we can stand up to that competition. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor should not claim to know better than the whole industry. I do not think that he does and I do not believe that the House thinks that he does.

The hon. Member also mentioned cartons. I had not previously gathered that Liberal policy was to ban cartons. If that is its policy, I hope that the Liberal party will discuss the matter with the SDP and with the dairy industry, which wishes to extend the market and not to tell consumers that they must have their milk in the package that the Liberal party thinks is good for them. That is paternalism gone mad. The hon. Gentleman should not come here with general comments about cartons, without having prepared his speech. That is not acceptable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) was kind enough to pay tribute to those in the Ministry who have carried the burden of the negotiations on the directive. As one who has only recently joined the Ministry, I associate myself with those comments. We have had a successful outcome to an extremely hard fought and important discussion.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and I take a different view about the European Community, but it is not fair to say that Britain is the fall guy on every issue. In this case, we have established the standards for the whole Community. Far from being the fall guy, we have led the Community into an improved position, and that is one of the purposes for which we joined and one of the reasons why we are proud to be a member.

It would be wrong for me to sit down without returning to the two other comments made by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley. He differs from the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), the Opposition spokesman on the subject, who is a farmer of considerable note and farms a substantial area.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

He has no cows.

Mr. Gummer

He certainly has land upon which cows could be grazed.

It is a staggering fact that we will allow the milk to come in, if it comes in, through the ports. We will allow it to come through those ports which are able to handle it, because it would be unlikely to come through ports that were not able to handle it. Every port is open to milk, but no doubt importers and exporters will choose ports that are best able to handle it. We have enough faith in the free market to believe that it can choose which ports to send its milk to.

The hon. Gentleman asked about enforcement. The comparison with the olive oil regime seemed extremely far-fetched. Opposition Members are supposed to belong to an international party. They sing "The Internationale" and yet everybody outside Britain produces—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman enthused over the matter of—

Mr. Foulkes

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer

No, I will not give way. We on the Government Benches show our internationalism by supporting with enthusiasm this directive. As usual, the Opposition side attack the foreigner whenever they meet him.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's unnumbered explanatory memorandum dated 26th June 1985 on health and animal health problems affecting intra-community trade in heat-treated milk; endorses the view that trade in heat-treated milk should be subject to a Community regime in order to protect human and animal health; and therefore welcomes Council Directive No. 85/397/EEC of 5th August 1985 on health and animal health problems affecting intra-community trade in heat-treated milk.