HC Deb 23 March 1999 vol 328 cc141-3
1. Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

What discussions he has had with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food regarding the impact on Scottish retailers of the levy proposed under the draft food standards Bill. [76305]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Sam Galbraith)

My right hon. Friend has had a number of discussions with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food regarding the nature and possible impact of the levy-raising powers proposed under the food standards Bill.

From 1 July, that will be a matter for the Scottish Parliament.

Mrs. Michie

Has the Minister's right hon. Friend made it clear that in Scotland we cannot agree to a flat-rate levy? Why should a little shop on the island of Lismore or Gigha in my constituency pay the same as a large, wealthy supermarket? Will the Minister confirm that the Scottish Parliament will be able to reject that "poll tax on the plate" and agree that the Food Standards Agency should be paid for out of general taxation?

Mr. Galbraith

The current levy scheme proposals are part of genuine consultation, and I have been touring the country having open meetings with interested parties. We shall certainly be happy to consider alternatives, provided they are administratively simple, cost-effective and fair, and we are actively encouraging such alternative proposals.

Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber)

My hon. Friend will be aware that we inherited a crisis of confidence in food, following the E. coli outbreak in central Scotland in 1996 and 1997, when 21 people tragically died. What reassurance can my hon. Friend give the Scottish people that such tragedies will not occur in future?

Mr. Galbraith

As my hon. Friend will know, we have made considerable progress on food safety over the past two years. We have implemented almost all Professor Pennington's recommendations, with significant objective improvements so far. I have no doubt that, although the agency will not absolutely guarantee that there will be no more problems, it will significantly reduce them and reassure people throughout the United Kingdom of the safety and wholesomeness of our food.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Will the Minister accept that there is a strong, indeed unanswerable, case for locating the Scottish arm of the Food Standards Agency in the north-east of Scotland, given the unique combination of its research base and agricultural production areas? Should that not be part of a widespread plan for civil service dispersal across Scotland?

Did I detect from the Minister's earlier answer that the Government are moving away from the ridiculous argument that a branch of Sainsbury's should pay the same as a corner shop, and that they would consider a banded system that would be fair to all retailers?

Mr. Galbraith

As I toured the country, discussing this matter with interested parties, I noticed that, everywhere I went, everyone asked for the Scottish arm of the agency to be based in their area. I shall take the hon. Gentleman's presentation as a plea for his area, and duly note it.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

Further to the Minister's answer, will the Scottish Parliament have the power, under the Scotland Act 1998, to overrule, compensate for or alter any levy that is set by the Treasury, or will the Treasury dictate policy in Scotland?

Mr. Galbraith

Detailed effects of devolution on that policy area are still being considered, although we intend the levy to apply consistently in all parts of the United Kingdom.

Dr. Fox

If the levy is to apply consistently in all parts of the United Kingdom, that makes nonsense of the Minister's earlier answer to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie). Is it not clear that the Treasury will still dictate policy on that matter and that the measure will be another part of the Government's stealth tax programme which will be imposed on Scottish retailers? Are the Government not therefore hypocritical to criticise other parties for wanting to use the tax-raising powers that the Government campaigned for and included in the Scotland Act, when they are raising taxes by stealth from Scottish retailers at every turn?

Mr. Galbraith

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman clearly does not understand the matter, as he made obvious by trying to draw false conclusions from my response to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. As I said, we aim to ensure that the levy is uniform across the United Kingdom because it is correct and proper for a UK agency to be concerned with food throughout the country.

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