§ 4. Mr. Bennett
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement about how many products now have ecolabelling in the United Kingdom.
§ The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. Robert Atkins)
On Thursday 25 November the United Kingdom Ecolabelling Board awarded the first European Community ecolabels to Hoover Ltd. for three washing machines in its New Wave range. Environmental criteria have also been adopted for dishwashers.
§ Mr. Bennett
I welcome the Minister to his new post, but he takes over a pretty sorry tale as far as ecolabelling is concerned. It is clear that about one third of shoppers would be happy to purchase products that were environmentally friendly, but they have become increasingly disillusioned by false claims. It is almost four years since the Government promised that they would have a proper system in place. Is not it appallingly slow progress to have virtually one award every year for four years? Can the Minister tell us how many more awards there will be in the next 12 months?
§ Mr. Atkins
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I think that it is right and proper for me to place on record my appreciation of, and thanks to, my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo), for the sterling work that he did for environmental and rural interests. He can be proud of his ministerial achievements.
The hon. Gentleman has raised the matter of ecolabelling on numerous occasions, and he is right to do so. We are in the forefront of those pressing for a Community-wide system as a result of pressure from my predecessors, and indeed the pressure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will continue to bring to bear. The hon. Gentleman cannot expect us to operate a separate system, which would be clearly counterproductive in the context of the EC.
§ Mr. Robert B. Jones
I welcome my hon. Friend to his post. In his time as a Northern Ireland Minister, my hon. Friend had experience of being grilled by the Select Committee on the Environment, and I can promise him just as much in his new post.
Does my hon. Friend agree that making sure that false environmental claims are not made about products is equally as important as ecolabelling? Will he therefore ensure that talks with the DTI deliver a reform of the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 in that regard as soon as possible?
§ Mr. Atkins
My hon. Friend makes an entirely fair point, and I am grateful to him for his kind wishes. We are in conversation with the DTI, and I know from my own experience how important it is that the information that is provided on any product fits in with the Trade Descriptions Act. I know that the DTI is fully aware of our concern and of the concern of the consumer.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes
Will animal testing now be definitely included in the ecolabelling process? The Government had apparently said that they were willing for animal testing to be included, but that has not been formally confirmed. Will there be across-the-board acceptable criteria and standards? When will the Minister conclude his discussions with the voluntary sector so that a general agreement can be made?
§ Mr. Atkins
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I know that the Commission is considering the matter and, as he will understand, I am not yet in a position to make a detailed judgment or statement on where the Commission stands. Certainly the Commission is interested in that, and the ecolabelling board in the United Kingdom is also aware of the concern. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises that there is more of an ethical argument than an environmental argument over animal testing, and that is a part of the problem that we have to consider. I shall give the matter my urgent attention.
§ Sir Roger Moate
Is it not more important to get ecolabelling right than to be rushed into premature judgments? Will my hon. Friend take particularly seriously the representations of the paper industry to ensure that any system of ecolabelling does not work to the disadvantage of British producers of what is an environmentally friendly and eminently recyclable product?
§ Mr. Atkins
What my hon. Friend says is right. It is essential that we have a standard that is applicable throughout the European Union. In those circumstances, it is better to take time and get it right, recognising that there is legitimate pressure from the consumer and from Conservative and Opposition Members that we should do so as quickly as possible.