HC Deb 30 October 1990 vol 178 cc893-4

5 pm

Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

To move to more tranquil waters, I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for products other than food and drink to carry information about environmental effects and safety; and for connected purposes. In the normal course of events, when a consumer wishes to make a purchase, I am content to let quality, price and delivery jostle together in the decision with a little touch of caveat emptor thrown in for good measure. However, with the advance of science today and the spread of products, unless one has a chemical degree and a knowledge of the effect of chemicals on the environment, the present labelling and ingredient labelling requirements are worse than useless. That is, of course, assuming that one can read the label in the first place. More often than not, the purchase of such products is made on environmental grounds on the basis of the information on the can or the label.

You will be glad to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have not brought a series of samples into the Chamber today. Cans often carry bucolic scenes. There may be birds, bees and butterflies all twittering around on the can, yet inside there will be a chlorofluorocarbon propellant. Courtesy of the Consumers Association, I have information that other claims are put on the side of containers, some of which are completely meaningless. Such claims include, "Product contains no phosphates or nitrates of ammonia", when one cannot buy any brand of that product which contains those ingredients. The case continues in that way.

My Bill for non-food products will help to give the consumer more relevant information when making an informed choice about the purchase of non-food products, particularly with regard to their effect on the environment. The Bill does not tread new ground. I am not breaking forth into the wilderness. The west Germans have had their "Blue Angel" scheme for several years, since 1978. Later, the Canadians introduced their scheme. The logo consists of three doves, intertwined—surprise, surprise—with a maple leaf. The Canadians are promoting the scheme as part of their "Buy clean" campaign. The Japanese have an eco-mark to promote the same, based on a cradle-to-the-grave assessment.

In moving my Bill, I would be wrong to give the impression that the Government have been sitting on their hands and that all the other countries have done the necessary work. My researchers have discovered that a senior official at the Department of Trade and Industry—I shall spare his blushes by not mentioning his name—has been seconded to the Commission to work out a scheme within Europe.

A labelling scheme such as I envisage would be operated through public service agencies at arm's length and would operate more through regulation than legislation. Of course, it would need initial pump-priming but in time the fees that would be generated should make it self-financing. The cachet of having the label put on the product would be a powerful selling aid in this country, which at long last is becoming environmentally conscious.

I hope that what I suggest will be accepted not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the European Community. The Commission hopes to make a presentation to the Council of Ministers later this year. The purpose of the Bill—if it is accepted—is clear. If the EC does not come up with a scheme, the United Kingdom, with its growing commitment to the environment, will put one in place. The financial powers are there to do so, provided that the Environmental Protection Bill completes its passage through the House in the next couple of days.

The scheme must be cradle-to-the-grave. It would be stupid to label a product environmentally friendly and benign, only to discover that the process of its manufacture pollutes. Items would fall into several product sectors. Within those sectors, the merits of each item would be assessed. Those which are judged to reach the standard would be given the qualifying mark. It would be a simple, positive, guide to the purchaser on which products were least harmful to the environment. I envisage that there would be a moving standard within each sector—a constant striving for better quality in existing products and also an encouragement to produce replacements. The product which bears the mark of approval today may well fail to obtain it tomorrow.

As the scheme developed, I hope that next to whatever the mark will be there would be a grading system. A number would indicate the absolute effect that the product has on the environment. In that way, the purchaser would have more than merely a comparison within a sector in making a decision.

A scheme could become a positive sales aid to British manufacturing. For some time, I have been worried about foreign competition. The foreign product imported into our country may not necessarily be produced with the same care and attention to health and safety and pollution regulations which our manufacturers must employ.

In my Bill, I do not attempt to address what the mark will be. I shall leave it to some advertising agency or marketing organisation to come up with some fancy logo. However, I must confess that the capital letter E, standing for ecology, environment and perhaps Europe, has some appeal.

The chances of a 10-minute Bill reaching the statute book are somewhat similar to the survival chances of a snowball in the Sahara. However, I hope that, just as there are nutritional standards and sell-by dates on food, the House will approve the principle of environmental labelling for non-food products. The measure will build on the growing public awareness of the fragile nature of the environment and the need for its protection, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Richard Page, Sir Hugh Rossi, Mr. Robin Squire, Mr. Graham Bright, Mr. Roger King and Mr. Alistair Burt.