HC Deb 18 April 1986 vol 95 cc1196-9

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered. Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

12.57 pm
Sir John Wells (Maidstone)

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

As the House knows, the Second Reading took place without debate and rather more suddenly than we had expected. I should therefore express my thanks to my hon. Friend for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) for helping me out of a little difficulty in that regard. As there was no Second Reading debate, it might be convenient if I make a few brief remarks now, although I do not wish to go over all the ground that was covered fairly fully in Committee on Wednesday as time is short and other hon. Members wish to bring forward other measures.

As the House knows, ever since I became a Member of Parliament I have taken a keen interest in the well-being of British horticulture and I have always been eager to support any initiative to improve its position and quality. In the past 10 years or so there has been a gradual but noticeable improvement in the marketing standards of home grown produce generally. On Tuesday of this week the Apple and Pear Development Council laid on an excellent presentation in Westminster Hall which was visited by about 100 Members from all parties. Members in all parts of the House are therefore aware of the improving quality of British produce.

It is essential, however, that we look forward to further improvement. The more forward-looking growers are well aware that if they are to compete with high quality, well presented imports they must offer good products effectively marketed. Value for money can be offered by improving quality as well as by keeping down prices.

One of the factors in bringing about the improvement has been the European Community common quality standards for fresh fruit and vegetables, which have brought new confidence to the market place by setting recognised standards to which all growers and traders must adhere. Broadly, the aim is to keep products of unsatisfactory quality off the market.

In Committee on Wednesday my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd), who is well known for his assiduous interest on behalf of the wholesale fruit and vegetable trade, spoke of certain anxieties expressed about the Bill by the National Federation of the Wholesale Fruit and Vegetable Trade. I believe that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, and to a lesser extent myself, did what we could to allay those fears.

One important point must be repeated on the Floor of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne said that the wholesale trade would like closer inspection and controls at farm shops and pick-your-own stalls. I do not believe that that is strictly appropriate. At the wholesale end of the market, the ultimate customer cannot inspect every item of goods. At the farm shop, however, the buyer can see every apple, cauliflower and lettuce. In this protectionist age, I am still a great believer in caveat emptor. In a farm shop the emptor has every chance to look out. Therefore, the fears expressed by the national federation of the wholesale trade were probably misplaced.

The farm shop movement is majoring in freshness, if the House will allow such a word. I believe that the freshness element that is being put forward by farm shops is excellent. There are one or two grotty stalls, but no customer with any sense will go to a grotty stall, or if he goes once he will not go again. Nobody buys large quantities at a farm stall. Therefore, if somebody is caught with indifferent produce, he is wise enough to avoid it a second time.

The wholesale trade has another legitimate anxiety. It fears that the great bulk of the weight of inspection must be done in the wholesale markets, because we are, sadly, short of inspectors. There are not many of these distinguished and assiduous people, who are some of the finest public servants that we have. They work difficult hours on cold early mornings and do an extremely fine job. However, there are not many of them and they must work where there is the greatest bulk of produce. Inevitably, that is in the wholesale market.

In Committee I stressed the fact that most traders freely give all the details requested. However, there are a minority who do not give the details and who cause trouble. It is with a view to bringing that minority into a position where the good name of the trade and the quality of British produce will be maintained and improved that we have brought this modest little measure before the House. I hope that hon. Members will give it a Third Reading.

1.2 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

I acknowledge and welcome the motivation of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Sir J. Wells) in bringing this measure to the House. I am sure that we all applaud, as we must always, the search for the means to ensure quality and reliability of produce, especially home produce, when it is being bought by our own people. I fully acknowledge the correctness of those motivations, but I have one or two small reservations about the terms of the measure before us.

One reservation was expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone in Committee, when he said: it is not intended that the powers should be used extensively or result in a large number of prosecutions."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 16 April 1986; c. 2.] That is an admirable statement of intent or aspiration, but how it is possible, at this stage, for us to judge the number of prosecutions that may take place as a result of this measure is difficult for me to see. We all hope that very few people will be liable to prosecution, but one cannot tell, at this stage, to what extent prosecutions will take place. Therefore, that causes me some concern.

I am even more concerned because in my constituency there have been occasions when prominent horticulturists who have repeatedly been prosecuted for offences such as overloading vehicles have felt that they were being discriminated against and unduly harshly treated. Therefore, I regard what is proposed with some trepidation. If that is the sort of case that is dealt with in a different area of the law, there might be a danger here.

Why does one need to introduce a full panoply of bureaucracy and regulations in an area such as this? One has only to look, for example, at a body such as the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers, which has been established for some 700 years and has huge experience in this area, and ask oneself why we need such a Bill. We could instead look to a voluntary, charitable body with experience in an area such as this which would be well capable or, I would suggest, more capable of policing and reinforcing standards of produce and so on. It is always a source of some regret to me that we are forced to go down the road of statutory regulation rather than look to voluntary bodies, as we do with the goldsmiths or fishmongers, and many other bodies of long-standing excellence, which are allowed by us to impose standards and rules.

Mr. Mark Hughes (City of Durham)

The hon. Gentleman uses the goldsmiths as an example of a self-regulatory body, but hallmarking of gold and silver by Government-appointed assayists is the longest standing quality control on behalf of the consumer in the world.

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The point that I am trying to make is that in our search for the best means to maintain standards, my preference is always the voluntary self-regulating approach, as far as possible, rather than going too far down the road of statutory obligations and public officials doing the work. My limited reservations about the measure revolve round that area.

I should like to ask a few questions about the detailed provisions in the Bill. They revolve around clause 3, which refers to normal practice, which I always find slightly worrying. It states: The Ministers may by order made by statutory instrument make such amendments to this Act as they think fit for the purpose of changing the circumstances in which an authorised officer is required to give written consent to the movement of produce. Thus, there is scope for changes to be made by statutory instrument. The clause goes on to say: Before making such an order, the Ministers shall consult such organisations as appear to them to represent interests likely to be affected by the order. That is all well and good, but one wonders, in such circumstances, what might be in the ministerial mind when searching for representative bodies to consult.

Sir John Wells

It is my understanding that when the Bill was first thought up, before it came to me, all sectors of the trade were fully consulted. It has been given a fair wind by all sectors of the trade. The only modest reservations were the ones that I mentioned. I thought that it was important to take the House into my confidence about the small reservations, which were fully aired in Committee.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am glad that he has taken the opportunity to let the House know what the Committee knew. I hope he will concede that there is always an area of lingering doubt in such matters when, as we must rightly do, we leave it to the discretion of Ministers to determine when they make alterations by statutory instrument to adjust to changing circumstances, and, more important, when it is left to them to decide who will be consulted. We all must have had experience from time to time of bodies which feel aggrieved because they have not been consulted in a particular case. However, the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone has carried with him all the major elements of the trade gives the House confidence when considering the measure.

I wanted to air those limited reservations about the Bill, because one has to accept that it is vital to the horticulture industry that we are ever more vigilant over the maintenance of quality and standards. The work done by the Apple and Pear Development Council is a good example. That must be done so that we can make the best case for our consumers to consume our own products. In the past we have not always been of the best. However, any measure such as this, which helps in any way to achieve that end, must be welcomed by the House. I welcome it for that reason.

1.9 pm

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Sir J. Wells) on his success in the ballot and on his wisdom in promoting the Bill. The Government fully support the aims of the Bill and believe that if enacted it will be of considerable assistance to our inspectors in seeking to improve the quality of horticultural produce on the market by the effective enforcement of the quality standards for fruit and vegetables. Therefore, I hope very much that the Bill will be given its Third Reading today and that it will be agreed in another place in due course and reach the statute book.

Improved quality and improved marketing are essential to the success of the British horticulture industry in today's competitive environment, so any measure that will help the application of the quality standards must be in the longer-term interest of the industry. Likewise, any improvement in quality will help to ensure the availability of first-class produce, which is what today's consumers are coming more and more to expect, and rightly so.

In practical terms, the Bill will give horticultural marketing inspectors, and the equivalent officers in Scotland, the power to put a stop order on defective produce to prevent it being moved. The intention is to stop a minority of traders moving defective produce around to avoid being caught.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) mentioned the trade's reservations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd) expressed. I trust that we have reassured our hon. Friend and the trade. I listened carefully to the suggestion that we would be supporting an additional bureaucracy. We have an obligation under Community regulations, and arising from our responsibility to consumers, to enforce standards at all stages of distribution. It is clearly in our interests to do that as efficiently as possible. There is an obstacle to efficient enforcement—we cannot put a stop notice on to prevent the small minority of traders from moving produce about to avoid being caught.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire expressed anxiety about clause 3(1), which empowers us to make changes. This is a legitimate worry. We are contemplating only minor alterations. It would be a great nuisance if it was necessary to have primary legislation to achieve the same effect.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.