HC Deb 20 June 1996 vol 279 cc987-9
4. Mr. Nicholas Baker

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what steps he is taking (a) to reduce the extent of regulation on the UK food industry and (b) to increase its global competitive ness. [32364]

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

The Government's food law deregulation plan was published on 14 September 1993. It listed 29 action points. Action has already been completed on 15 of these and a further 11 are due for completion this year. In addition, the Ministry has a market task force, dedicated to improving marketing competitiveness.

Mr. Baker

The Government's activities on deregulation and the market task force are to be welcomed. I hope that my hon. Friend will do what she can to increase those activities, because they benefit the food industry, which is well poised to take advantage of world markets, not least as the common agricultural policy fades. Will my hon. Friend take action to discourage and prevent the over-zealous enforcement of food regulations by environmental health officers, which is still taking place? Does my hon. Friend agree that the last thing our excellent food industry needs is a Government formed by the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, who are the enemies of enterprise and the apostles of over-regulation? The damage they have caused to our beef industry is already very serious.

Mrs. Browning

My hon. Friend is right to seek to draw a balance between the need, quite rightly, to protect the consumer and the need not to stultify enterprise in this important industry. The system which we have developed, and which environmental health officers enforce, is the HACCP system—hazard analysis critical control point. It looks at where the critical points are in food production, identifies where the risks are and applies the law proportionately. I hope that the House is aware that that system has been recognised in this country and is being emulated in others as well.

Mr. Corbett

Does the Minister not find it extraordinary that one of her hon. Friends should contemplate relaxing regulation on food when we have just been told of the colossal cost of clearing up the BSE scandal and when there has just been concern over the safety of baby milk? Would not the best answer be the establishment of a food standards agency, separate from the Minister's Department?

Mrs. Browning

No, I am not astonished. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr. Baker) struck the exact balance—proper enforcement proportionate to risk. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that baby milk is quite safe.

Mr. Batiste

Is my hon. Friend aware that, over recent years, small independent abattoirs have had to pay huge sums in order to meet the standards set by new and ever-higher regulatory levels? It is precisely those abattoirs that are now facing devastation as a consequence of the application of the policy on BSE and the decision to use only the large abattoirs for that slaughter policy. Before my hon. Friend comes back to the House with proposals for the slaughter of more animals, I hope that she and her colleagues will think carefully about the need to be fair to those small independent abattoirs, particularly those which have in place adequate rendering facilities.

Mrs. Browning

I am aware of that, and I am sympathetic to the investment made by abattoirs across the country, many of which are seeking higher standards and the EU mark to enable them to export. That export market has now, unfairly, been denied to them. My hon. Friend will have heard the answer given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister when he explained how those abattoirs have been selected for the 30-month cull scheme.

I must tell my hon. Friend that one of the encouraging things is that the British consumer is still eating beef. We can see in the supermarkets that there is still support in the United Kingdom for the consumption of beef. Therefore, there is an opportunity for all slaughterhouses to slaughter for consumption. Despite the importance of the cull scheme, we must not lose sight of the fact that abattoirs are still slaughtering for consumption, and that is the most important aspect.

Mrs. Golding

Does the Minister not think that food safety should come before the political dogma of deregulation? Is she prepared to risk another food crisis by sticking to the dogma that deregulation is all—important?

Mrs. Browning

We never subjugate the safety of consumers to any policy or dogma. I refute totally the hon. Lady's suggestion and I am sorry that she could not find something more constructive to say.

Mr. Spring

Is my hon. Friend aware of how efficient the farmers in my constituency are in terms of global competitiveness? Is she also aware of the high levels of optimism among cereals farmers in Suffolk, which is manifested in rising land prices? Will my hon. Friend join me in applauding the fact that that optimism has translated itself into an unemployment rate in my constituency of only 4.2 per cent.—one of the lowest anywhere in the developed world?

Mrs. Browning

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the competitiveness of firms in his constituency—and, indeed, the United Kingdom in general. That is why we supported the general agreement on tariffs and trade and why we are seeking to reform the common agricultural policy and move towards world market prices as soon as possible. British farms will be well placed to compete in a global market.