HC Deb 03 March 2000 vol 345 cc701-36

Order for Second Reading read.

12.7 pm

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

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

In presenting the Bill, I shall describe how and why I came to select the issue of honesty in food labelling, explain the scheme and the contents of the Bill, and emphasise the opportunity that the House and the Government have to enable vital legislative progress to be made, which this issue deserves and which the people of this country, both consumers and producers, demand.

As the House knows, I had the honour and privilege to be elected only seven months ago to represent the constituents and interests of Eddisbury. My constituency covers south-west Cheshire. I took my seat on the day before the House rose for the summer recess, so I had, in effect, only been in the House and seen the way in which it works for a few weeks when I came 10th in the private Member's Bill ballot—not only to my surprise, but to the surprise and, in some instances, consternation of right hon. and hon. Members. Comments such as, "He's only been here a few minutes" were at the generous end of the wide spectrum of remarks that flooded my way when the result of the ballot was announced.

In common with other right hon. and hon. Members who gained places in the high and middle orders of the ballot, I was immediately confronted with a truly staggering quantity of mail that poured in from individuals and organisations, all urging me to adopt their suggestions for a Bill. It amounted to a menu of scores of worthy and, occasionally, wacky causes.

To understand why I stuck with my first instinct to introduce a Bill that would provide for simple, clear and, above all, honest labelling of foods in this country—for reasons that will become apparent, the Bill is designed to encompass England and Wales; I shall refer to the position in Scotland and Northern Ireland later—it is helpful to rewind the clock a little to the by-election that brought me to the House in the first place.

Being elected in a hard fought by-election in a marginal seat is an invigorating and exacting experience, as other right hon. and hon. Members who have won their seats in similar circumstances will testify. The great benefit of the experience is that, during by-elections, issues of key relevance to local electors—in Eddisbury, in my case—are played out in the relentless glare of publicity on the national stage, and in the intense atmosphere generated by a three-week campaign.

At the point where the west midlands end and the north-west starts, Eddisbury's profile—its main town of Winsford, containing 27,000 people, its northern villages and its rural communities, covering by far the greater part of the constituency geographically and bordering Wales and Shropshire—is typical of the country as a whole. Its opinions therefore constitute a fair weathervane of the issues that confront all the people of the country. It was all too painfully clear during the by-election campaign that farmers in south-west Cheshire and throughout the country were experiencing desperate times. As has been acknowledged by Members in all parts of the House, their plight has only worsened in the months since then, but those who have survived continue to deliver products of the highest quality, despite mounting losses.

At a time when the public are ever more conscious of, and concerned about, the British farming crisis, more and more consumers want to support farmers by buying British whenever and wherever they can—not only on the basis of quality and value for money but, perhaps crucially, because of their recognition that our farmers are producing food to the highest standards of production, and, in the case of livestock, because of the exemplary animal welfare practices insisted on, and robustly policed, by the United Kingdom. In many instances, however, our farmers and producers face intensely unfair competition from importers of foodstuffs in countries whose inferior standards of production and welfare mean that their production costs are considerably lower.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

Every word that my hon. Friend has said about hard-pressed farmers, especially pig producers, applies to the many pig producers whom I represent. I hope that we shall find a way of giving his Bill a fair wind.

Mr. O'Brien

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend. I believe that the issues raised in my Bill affect constituents and farming communities up and down the land, and that the Bill has a general application. It was clear to me that the feeling in Eddisbury typified the mood in much of the country, and I hope that we can make progress with the Bill so that we can help farmers and consumers.

We should consider the interests of farmers in conjunction with the powerful mistrust and lack of confidence that has developed among consumers in recent years. Food labelling has been shown to be misleading. There have been well-publicised instances of products that appear from the label to be British, but in fact come from outside the country. There is an overwhelming need to secure simple, clear, honest labelling. The Bill's purpose is to ensure that labels and marks relating to the country of origin and the standards of production of food presented for sale enable consumers to make an informed decision about which food they want to purchase.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Does my hon. Friend agree with me, and with farmers throughout south Cumbria, that perhaps the most scandalous example of the misrepresentation to which he refers is the application of a Union jack to products that have merely been packaged in this country, and did not originate here? Would his Bill not help to correct that damaging misrepresentation?

Mr. O'Brien

As my hon. Friend knows, I share his deep affection for south Cumbria, and any measure that helps farmers there—and, of course, those in south-west Cheshire—has my full support. My hon. Friend may well find that the example he has given is referred to a few paragraphs later in my speech.

The Bill meets the demands of my constituents and the needs of consumers and food producers throughout the country. Therefore, my decision to introduce it, in effect, made itself. It was for me a simple, clear and honest choice. The cause is not only worthy, but is a real opportunity to be effective in tackling an issue of the utmost seriousness to the people of this country, whom we all represent in this House.

Although the crisis in the farming industry was a key factor in my decision to introduce the Bill, it is intended not to be, nor to form part of, a nationalistic, anti-competitive buy-British campaign, but rather to give the force of law to simple, clear and honest food labelling, so that consumers have the facts that they need to enable them to make an informed choice. If that information results in consumers choosing to buy British-originated and produced food, for whatever reasons, all well and good.

Since announcing my decision, I have been genuinely taken aback at the scale and warmth of support that I have received for the Bill. It carries the hopes of farmers, producers and consumers up and down the land. That support starts in the House, and I am grateful for the cross-party support that I have received in launching it. It is truly an all-party measure. If it reaches the statute book, it will be a credit to the House and, I believe sincerely, to the Government—who will, I fervently hope, even at this eleventh hour support it and allow it to make progress.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

Has my hon. Friend had any communication from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about the Bill? Might one not have expected that he would immediately have been called in, congratulated and helped? Has he encountered that attitude?

Mr. O'Brien

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. As it happens, I did not receive such an invitation. There has been some contact between the National Farmers Union and MAFF in relation to the Bill. I have had the benefit of being briefed on that contact, but at a personal level the answer is no.

I pay tribute to the sponsors of the Bill, who traverse the political spectrum. As well as the support of my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser), for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray)—who I see is in his place—for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson)—who represents my neighbouring constituency and with whom I share the largest milk field in Europe—for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) and for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), I have the support of Members from the Government Benches: the hon. Members for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) and for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Dobbin). I am delighted to have the support, too, of the Liberal Democrats in the form of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), who I am pleased to see in his place.

Amplifying the support for the Bill, I refer the House to early-day motion 445, which is in my name, that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), the shadow Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—I am most grateful to see him here—his shadow agricultural team colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), and, as of this morning, 60 other right hon. and hon. Members from the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Ulster Unionist and, let me emphasise, Labour Benches.

The early-day motion states: That this House, noting the Prime Minister's statement in his speech to the National Farmers' Union of Tuesday 1st February, in which he promised to introduce new labelling guidance to make sure foreign goods are not passed off as British simply because they have been processed in Britain, calls on the Prime Minister and Her Majesty's Government to support and give speedy passage to the Food Labelling Bill introduced by the honourable Member for Eddisbury which would put the full force of the law behind clear, simple and honest labelling, address those very concerns on labelling raised in the Prime Minister's speech and provide for a fair deal on labelling for both consumers and farmers.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I, too, wish to express strong support for the Bill. I hope that there will be rapid progress today, not least because it might give an opportunity for my Bill later. In relation to simple, straightforward and non-confusing labelling, may I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the importance of organic food? A huge proportion of organic food in this country is imported: three quarters, approximately. The consumer is not aware of that, but it is relevant to his Bill. I hope that, together, we can make progress in both directions.

Mr. O'Brien

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Although many points need to be made on the issue, I shall try to keep my remarks to their absolute minimum. However, I hope that with the full consensus on the issue that I fervently hope will emerge in this debate, his Bill will soon be considered. If we can establish the principles to ensure simple, clear, honest and not misleading labelling, by passing my Bill the hon. Gentleman's concerns on organic foods—and concerns on various issues on which I have received correspondence from all sorts of interested groups—may be dealt with more effectively. However, addressing all those issues will require a much wider and more detailed debate.

Early-day motion 445 asked the House to implement the Prime Minister's promise. I tabled it on Tuesday. On Wednesday, however, the Government tabled a negative amendment to block my early-day motion. It was signed only by Labour Members. I am not sure whether Whips' narcs is an unparliamentary expression—I see that my own Whip nearly took the words out of my mouth—so I shall not use it

Nevertheless, intriguingly and surprisingly, on the same day—Wednesday—as signing that negative, anti-British-consumer, anti-British-farmer amendment, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman)—who is Chairman of the Education and Employment Committee, of which I am privileged to be a member—signed the all-party early-day motion 209. That early-day motion was signed also by the hon. Members for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) and for Erewash (Liz Blackman), both of whom also signed the negative amendment to my early-day motion.

Early-day motion 209, on stall and tether-produced pigmeat, states: That this House is deeply concerned about the import of cheap pigmeat from countries which use sow stalls and tethers, systems which have been illegal in the United Kingdom on cruelty grounds since 1st January, following the agreement of the House in 1991; believes that these imports are undermining the United Kingdom pig industry; condemns those supermarkets, caterers and public procurement agencies which are continuing to sell or use imported pigmeat derived from foreign herds which use sow stalls and tethers; believes that United Kingdom stall and tether-free pigmeat should have a marketing premium over imported pigmeat produced using sow stalls and tethers; believes that the marketing premium is dissipated in the absence of mandatory labelling as to production method; believes that consumers are being misled by the absence of mandatory labelling of production method on pigmeat products; calls on United Kingdom supermarkets, caterers and public procurement agencies to support the United Kingdom's newly-raised sow welfare standards by selling or using only stall and tether-free pigmeat; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to introduce legislation similar to that recently enacted in Switzerland requiring meat produced by methods which would be illegal in the United Kingdom to be labelled as such.] The final words of the motion specifically state that the House believes that consumers are being misled by the absence of mandatory labelling of production method on pigmeat products; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to introduce legislation similar to that recently enacted in Switzerland— which is outside the European Union, of course—

requiring meat produced by methods which would be illegal in the United Kingdom to be labelled as such. Even more intriguingly, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Sawford) not only was one of the first six signatories to Wednesday's negative amendment to my early-day motion 445, but, on the same day, signed the all-party early-day motion 62. Only yesterday, the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington)—who was an early signatory to early-day motion 62—signed the negative amendment to early-day motion 445. Early-day motion 62 calls for mandatory country of origin labelling across the European Union. Oh dear, what a tangled web those Whips weave.

Mr. Letwin

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is another hon. Member about whom we need to know more? In the House, the Agriculture Minister said: I want to clamp down on misleading place of origin descriptions.—[Official Report, 28 October 1999; Vol. 336, c. 1126.] Was he perhaps a signatory to my hon. Friend's early-day motion?

Mr. O'Brien

My hon. Friend, as usual, makes such a very good and insightful point. However, I did not spot the Minister's name on my early-day motion. As for the Minister's use of the phrase "clamp down", my hon. Friend will have to wait for my mid-term peroration on this part of my speech to hear how that has been handled.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not usual for Ministers to sign early-day motions? His negative remarks on that point should, therefore, not be misconstrued. I also hope that the hon. Gentleman will not go too far down that road, as there are clearly some defects—which I am sure we shall tease out—in his rejected Bill. Nevertheless, I am sure that many people support his objectives and want them to be realised. The more constructive he is, the more likely he is to achieve his aims.

Mr. O'Brien

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and of course I wish to be constructive. However, I have to paint in the background against which I am introducing my Bill. Although I appreciate that we belong to different parties, and that different Back Benchers will hold different views, I am trying to understand the mixed messages that have come from the Government on the issue—for which they are responsible and accountable.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien

Let me finish this point first.

In trying to understand the background to the Government's thinking in the context of introducing the Bill, it seemed to me that, in their rush to get Labour Members to put their names to the negative amendment on Wednesday, the Labour Whips have caused mayhem, muddled thinking and great embarrassment to some of their own Back Benchers. This may be a sign of confusion or panic or both. It is certainly a great disappointment to their constituents.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I was certainly not confused when I signed the amendment to his early-day motion and I hope to explain my views later in the debate.

Mr. O'Brien

As ever, I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's brief contribution to the debate. He is completely exonerated from the charge of signing three completely contradictory early-day motions. That was the point that I was elucidating earlier. I promised to give way to the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins).

Mr. Hopkins

A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman glossed over the significant difference between pursuing legitimate changes in EU legislation—with which I would agree—and pursuing changes in national legislation that would not be acceptable within the EU framework. There is a crucial difference which I hope to address in more detail later in the debate.

Mr. O'Brien

I shall address those issues in some detail. Of course they have been disclosed to some degree in the amendment to early-day motion 445. I was aware of them previously, and I have conducted some fairly detailed research. I hope that I will be able to demonstrate that there are other arguments that suggest that the Bill may not face the insurmountable obstacles that the Government think it will face vis-à-vis the EU.

Against that extraordinary and somewhat baffling background, I am pleased to introduce the Bill today. More positively, I am pleased that it has been welcomed by the National Farmers Union, the National Pig Association and the Consumers Association. I should like to express my appreciation and gratitude to the NFU and the NPA for the extensive time, expertise, encouragement and assistance that they have given me in drafting and publicising the Bill.

On Monday, I was presented with a petition in support of honesty in food labelling with more than 3,000 signatures from people from the north-west of England. Hon. Members on both sides of the House represent people in the north-west. The petition forms part of a larger petition of more than 52,000 signatures collected by the NFU and others up and down the country in support of the Bill and the principles contained within it.

There is a widespread feeling that the current position on food labelling is simply not adequate and that the necessary improvements to the labelling of food in Britain need the full force of the law behind them. That point was supported by the Consumers Association on behalf of the consumers of this country who have said that, in empowering consumers, the Bill is a step in the right direction.

As I have said, the Bill seeks to ensure that consumers are properly informed about the country of origin and the standards of production of food that is presented for sale. I believe that the Bill can achieve those aims by putting the full force of the law behind honest labelling.

Under the current food labelling regulations, a pork pie labelled "Produced in England" could have been made with Belgian or Brazilian pork. The consumer is unaware of the origin of the ingredients or how the product was made. The justification for the Bill can be summarised in the following words: We produce some of the best food in the world to exacting quality, hygiene and animal welfare standards. Our industry should get the credit and the premium for it. Consumers need to know when they buy food labelled as British, it is British food produced in Britain. Those were the words of the Prime Minister in his speech last month to the NFU. In the same speech he announced that new guidance would be issued on country of origin marking, so that the consumer can choose, not be misled, and the farmer gain credit for local-sourced produce and British quality standards. I agree with those aspirations, but I also believe that consumers can never have 100 per cent. trust in food labelling unless they know that the full force of the law stands behind them, defending their interests.

Mr. McWalter

Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that the advice given by MAFF to trading standards officers on 1 February this year would specifically rule out the idea that somebody could label a pork pie "Produce of Britain" or "Produce of England" if the pork was actually Belgian? The current trading standards regulations would mean that the pork pie would have to be labelled "Belgian pork, finished in Britain" or words to that effect. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right in his portrayal of the current situation.

Mr. O'Brien

I am grateful for that detailed intervention and I shall deal with those points later. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of the operation of the trading standards officers. I do not know whether it is true that the 1 February guidelines, which were an attempt to toughen up the position, will rule out such labelling, and that point goes to the heart of whether we need a statute that gives the force of law. It could be argued that the guidelines are an exhortation—

Mr. Letwin

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Bill falls foul of European law, that must also apply to the guidelines if they have any real effect?

Mr. O'Brien

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a forensic point. The guidelines would be in contravention of European law only if they had the force of law. If they do not, there is nothing to which the European Union could object because they are only advice. We will want to hear a little more from the Government on that point.

The full force of the law needs to be behind consumers' interests. One of the reasons why the public demand for better food labelling has grown recently is the high profile food safety scares, such as the Belgian food scare and the revelations about French farming practices. Those scares have challenged the public faith in food labelling and mere guidelines are not enough to allay those fears.

The Government response will, I believe, be that the labelling guidelines issued on 1 February have the force of law. Let us be clear about those guidelines. They have been issued to trading standards officers to indicate how the Government expect them to discharge their duties with regard to misleading food labels. The guidelines facilitate only the prosecution in court by trading standards officers of, for instance, pork producers who import Dutch pork packed in the UK and sell it as British. In truth, those producers do not just label the pork as British, they label it "Produced in Britain", which is not necessarily caught by the current regulations, as the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) sought to establish.

If the argument that the current regulations are sufficient is advanced by the Government, I do not believe that it will hold water. The preamble to the guidelines is, unlike today's food labels, simple, clear and honest. It states specifically that the guidance is "informal, non-statutory" and that the notes should not be taken as an authoritative statement or interpretation of the law, because, as it continues only the courts have this power. Therefore, the guidelines are not even a statutory code like the "Highway Code".

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin)

Perhaps I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman, because he does not seem to understand the point, that the guidelines interpret the law that the previous Government passed while putting into effect a European directive that the previous Government also passed. It is the terms of that directive, to which the previous Government agreed, that make the Bill's proposals contrary to European Union law.

Mr. O'Brien

I listened carefully to the Minister, and I acknowledge that the previous Government introduced the food labelling regulations and implemented the EU directive. The Minister is right that the guidance notes do not have statutory force, but are intended to give guidance towards legal enforcement. However, nothing has changed since 1 February except that the guidance has been reissued. We know that the law that existed before did not address the problem, with the result that the deep unease about labels that might be misleading has persisted since 1996.

The 1 February guidelines may lead to some improvement, although we may have to wait a little longer to be sure. However, the nature of the law has not changed. The same legal base for enforcement remains in place; only the guidelines have changed. I therefore believe that my point is valid, despite what the Minister said.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

The Minister will know that the guidelines may help trading standards officers enforce the law in cases of misleading labelling, but they do not have the force of law.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Ministry may have been given defective advice? Clause 3 deals with welfare standards and does not ban EU produce in the way that the French banned British beef. For example, EU pigmeat can come into this country freely. Does my hon. Friend accept that the Bill merely seeks to make it clear to consumers that food complies with the higher animal welfare standards required of British farmers?

Mr. O'Brien

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend, although I hesitate even to confirm the legal case that he presented with such erudition. However, it is absolutely right to emphasise that a precedent was set when the British acceded to the French demand that British beef be labelled as such in France. That matter is being considered by the European Court of Justice, but we believe that it is contrary to EU law because it amounts to a ban on importation. My right hon. and learned Friend has pointed out that clause 3 would not impose any form of ban on imports; it merely requires that information be made available that would allow a comparative reference to be made. That would give consumers the ability to make an informed choice, something for which they have been crying out.

Mr. Letwin

Does my hon. Friend agree that we have witnessed something extraordinary? He has just received advice, in Parliament, from a former Attorney-General, yet the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has not made the slightest move to determine whether its legal advice on the matter is right or wrong.

Mr. O'Brien

I defer to my hon. Friend's longer experience in the House. I have been here such a short time that I did not know what to expect in terms of the procedure involved in introducing the Bill. It did occur to me that the Ministry might want to be in touch with me to find out whether there was common ground between us. I published the Bill at the proper time, and although I was slightly disappointed that no contact was forthcoming, I assumed that that was normal.

It might have been very helpful to discuss the Bill with the Ministry. I do not know of any hon. Member who questions the principles behind the Bill, and it is disappointing that the debate has centred on technicalities. I shall turn to the details later, but earlier contact with the Ministry would have ensured that the opportunity represented by the Bill would not be missed, as it would have allowed us to hear learned advice of the sort given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell).

The guidelines do not even amount to a statutory code in the same way that the "Highway Code" does. The Government say that they expect trading standards officers to operate using the guidance but that is not the same as saying that they must. The exchanges and interventions that have taken place have underscored that point. In her response, will the Minister give a simple, clear and honest answer to a simple, clear and honest question: how many prosecutions have there been for misleading labels on country of origin?

What consumers are asking about foods, here and in other countries, is where does it come from and how is it made? The voluntary undertaking by the British Retail Consortium in November 1998 and the regulations have made progress, but not enough. Otherwise, consumer mistrust of misleading labelling would not be persisting and growing. The force of law is needed—hence my Bill.

The Bill builds on, rather than detracts from, the current position on food labelling. Hon. Members will note that its long title states that it makes further provision for consumers of food to be informed about the country of origin and standards of production of food presented for sale by labelling, marking or in other ways. That takes into account the recent introduction of the Food Standards Act 1999, which established the Food Standards Agency. The Minister will recall that the Government later inserted an amendment in another place after strong prompting, it has to be said, from my shadow agriculture team colleague, Baroness Byford. That amendment made it clear that in the context of what is now the 1999 Act, the interests of consumers include the labelling of foods. The reference to being informed is a direct lift from the phrase "informed" decisions from the Food Standards Act.

Clause 1 contains the definitions to which I shall refer back when the terms appear in context, save that I highlight the fact that the Bill has been drafted to sit on all fours with the existing food labelling regulations of 1996. It incorporates by reference many of the terms used in those regulations, given the thinking and experience that lie behind those existing non-statutory provisions—which do not have the force of law—a statutory basis.

Clause 2 provides a requirement for food to be marked or labelled at the point of sale to a consumer—the purchaser, rather than the person who consumes all the food—with the particulars of the country of origin. In the case of a single-ingredient food, such as a joint of beef—preferably on the bone—or an orange, that would be simple enough. However, clause 2(1)(a) also provides for the possibility of more than one country of origin, requiring all countries of origin to be identified. For instance, a single-ingredient product such as lettuce may be sourced from different countries. In its pre-packed form, mixed-leaf lettuce may be sourced from different lettuces from different countries but is presented for sale as one food item. The label would simply have to state all the countries of origin, even where, in a pre-pack, the single item—each individual lettuce leaf—could not necessarily be identified as having come from one or other of the countries of origin. The label might read that the countries of origin were countries A, B and C.

That is what the consumer needs. If for any reason, he or she prefers products from a certain country, the necessary information would be available for him or her to make such an informed decision. If the consumer wants to buy a product, such as beef, from one particular source country, the information would be there. As for my second example of lettuce, in exercising that choice, the consumer may want to purchase lettuce from elsewhere, from a supplier who can be sure, as evidenced by the labelling, which can be legally relied upon, that the lettuce comes from, say, the Channel islands—any why not?

Clause 2(1)(b) makes provision for food products containing more than one ingredient. It would be impracticable and an unjustified burden to provide the consumer with the information with which he or she can make an informed choice, by labelling the country of origin of every ingredient, such as seasoning and other additives. In any event, those matters are well covered and are available as information on labels under the present regulations requiring identification of ingredients. Therefore, the Bill would require only that the identity of the country or countries of origin of each major ingredient is on the label.

For the purposes of the Bill, I have defined a major ingredient, as set out in clause 1, as one that forms more than 25 per cent. by weight of a food product. That is straightforward. The weight of constituent ingredients of a food product is already generally a requirement under the existing food labelling regulations and a food producer will have the information when the ingredients are sourced. The more than 25 per cent. by weight threshold is a proposal that balances the need for relevant information—that is information that tends to affect consumer preferences—against introducing an over-burdensome or irrelevant set of requirements.

I freely accept that the threshold may be an issue that Members wish to debate further. I look forward to that opportunity today and, I hope, in Committee where we can consider the issue in greater detail. In the case of a pre-cooked and packaged shepherd's pie, the country or countries of origin of both the meat content and the potato content would need to be identified. In the case of pork sausages, the country or countries of origin of the meat content would have to be identified, but not the origin of the seasoning.

Clause 2(2) goes to the heart of one of the most crucial matters in the Bill. It addresses an issue of the greatest concern to producers and consumers that has led to mistrust and lack of confidence in labels. When a food has been packaged and processed in a country other than the country of origin, under my Bill, the country of origin would be shown at least as prominently as the particulars of the country where the food has been processed or packaged.

Let us consider the example of chickens bred in Thailand. They are stuffed with hormones that are illegal here and across the European Union. However, they are imported into this country or another EU state and processed and packaged in that member state, and they appear on our supermarket shelves with a label identifying them as being produced in the EU or even in a named member state. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) pointed out, if they are packaged and produced in this country, the package may even carry a Union jack on them. No wonder shoppers feel anxious and are mistrustful of labels when they learn the truth from stories, such as the Thai chicken scandal, that naturally receive wide coverage in the media.

I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, do not wish to consume food which you find, despite today's misleading but wholly legal labelling, is sourced from a country where the animal welfare, health and hygiene standards fall far below the standards we impose on farmers in this country.

In the opening speech in the debate in which I made my maiden speech, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food stated his position on this issue: I want to give clear, unambiguous information on the real place of origin, not place of processing or place of slicing; I want to clamp down on misleading place of origin descriptions; and I want to make further progress by lobbying the European Commission and other member states for a system of clear country of origin labelling.—[Official Report, 28 October 1999; Vol. 336, c. 1126.]

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I have been noticing with great pleasure that the Minister has been nodding assent to my hon. Friend's recent remarks in his carefully worded speech. Does he agree that it is important that the Government allow the Bill to proceed to Committee and that that should not be put off by arguments that it might be challenged on the ground that it would constitute measures equivalent to quantitative restrictions on imports? That is far from clear and there is every reason to think that the Bill could be put into a form that would comply with EU law, even if it does not already.

Mr. O'Brien

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend. It is my fervent hope, on behalf of the consumers and producers of this country, that the Bill will be allowed into Committee. I do not hide the fact that I am a single Member of Parliament and brand new to this place and, among everything else that goes on, it has been hard work to get the Bill to this point. I would welcome the chance to have it considered in Committee, where there are more resources at the disposal of the parliamentary process, to hone it and to focus on the important issues, such as those raised by my right hon. and learned Friend. I hope that the Government will see fit, at this eleventh hour, to nod assent and, subject to the will of the House, allow the Bill to go to Committee.

Mr. McWalter

Is the hon. Gentleman confirming that if the Bill can be made European compliant by a series of steps, he will take those steps to amend it in Committee, in so far as he can, so that when it returns to the House, the European objection cannot be made against it?

Mr. O'Brien

It is incumbent on us to seek to make any law passed by the House European compliant. My point is that the proposals are not necessarily in contravention of European law, although they bear examination. However, we should not lose sight of the principles that we are trying to establish of simple, clear and honest labelling of country of origin and production standards. The latter point raises the compliance issues, and I shall deal with that in more detail.

In addition to what the Minister of Agriculture said on 28 October last year, when he used the phrase "clamp down", on 1 February this year he said: I am determined to stamp out misleading labelling. How does a Minister clamp down on or stamp out something other than by the force of law? The Bill would fulfil those commitments, by ensuring compliance through legislation rather than relying on voluntary guidelines, codes of practice or mere regulations.

Mr. Letwin

I saw the Minister shake her head earlier. As my hon. Friend has had the chance to talk to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), the former Attorney-General, does he agree that if the Minister of Agriculture intended to clamp down on and stamp out those practices and he sought to achieve that by guidance, he would be presumptively doing whatever the Bill is trying to do effectively, and if the Bill is in contravention of European law, the Minister's actions are so too?

Mr. O'Brien

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a forensic intervention, and I believe that I understood it and that it contains a serious point. [Interruption.] I would expect Labour Members to laugh a little, out of embarrassment. However, my hon. Friend has made a valid comparison.

The law exists to be properly argued both by precedent and by measure against statute or code. I am a former practising lawyer, although nobody would want to take advice from me because I have not engaged in the law for the past 10 years. I do not want to make a cheap point, but there is a cultural difference between the legal approach and thinking of this country, with its law of precedent culture, and those of continental Europe, with its Roman codification law.

We negotiate and arrive at a concluded position in law, to which we then hold. I know from many years of business experience in all countries of Europe that European legal culture consists also of negotiating and arriving at a concluded agreement, but as circumstances change and things go wrong, that agreement becomes, in effect, a statement of what was agreed on the day, but everything is still negotiable. My hon. Friend's point, which I have developed, is therefore important and ought to be given the serious consideration that it deserves.

The second limb of the Bill provides for the labelling of production standards for the food's raw materials. Countless surveys and much market testing reveal that after the BSE crisis and the more recent Belgian food scare, and following the strenuous efforts by producers, retailers and UK Governments of both colours, British consumers believe, rightly, that their benchmark today is the production standards that are required and applied in this country. However, well-publicised stories of misleading food labelling mean that consumers cannot be sure that the food that they buy is not from a country with inferior production, hygiene and animal welfare standards and that has led to a collapse in the public's faith and trust in food labelling. Clause 3 therefore provides that information be given to consumers by ensuring that, when a food's country of origin label under clause 2 discloses that it is sourced in a country where food production standards are different from, and less demanding than, the production standards applicable in England and Wales, the label or mark is required to state that fact.

Clause 1 defines production standards as the minimum legal requirements relating to husbandry which must be observed by food producers, including requirements relating to animal welfare, food safety and environmental protection. I do not pretend that it has been easy to come up with a workable definition of production standards such that international differences in standards can be measured. I believe that that has been achieved, but there might be scope to tighten the definition in the Bill, and I should welcome assistance from the Government and other hon. Members in ensuring that the clause avoids any vagueness in a legal sense. Again, that is a matter to be considered in Committee. Clause 3(2) provides that in deciding whether, in relation to any food derived from livestock, the production standards in another country are less demanding than those applicable in England and Wales, reference should be made to the standards applicable in England and Wales, namely codes of recommendations for the welfare of livestock which are, from time to time, issued under the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 and which remain in force.

As has been mentioned, that clause causes concern in the Government and other circles that the Bill might be incompatible with relevant single market rules. I do not believe that the obstacles are insurmountable. Food labelling is undeniably an area of EU competence and national Governments are not free to impose requirements that could be restrictive within the single market. I am aware that the Government are nervous at the prospect of Her Majesty's Government being prosecuted in the European Court of Justice if the Bill becomes law. I can well comprehend that that would be embarrassing, given that France now faces court action—albeit protracted, while our farmers continue to suffer unjustifiably from French action—for flagrantly contravening EU law by banning British beef unilaterally. However, those fears are less than well founded. Even if there were a possibility that the Bill is incompatible with EU law, that clearly has no procedural bearing on the ability of the national Westminster Parliament to enact the legislation.

I was genuinely disappointed and appalled to hear the response of the Minister of Agriculture to a question asked by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead. On being asked whether he agreed that the best aid that the pig industry could receive would be to have a proper system of labelling, he replied: The legislation introduced through the private Member's route— that is, my Bill— is clearly designed to skirmish with the European Union, whose competence labelling is, rather than to solve any problem that is faced in the United Kingdom.—[Official Report, 10 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 389-90.] That was an unworthy, wholly cynical and improper answer. I can assure the House and the Minister, who is not present but whose right hon. Friend the Minister of State is, that thoughts of skirmishing with the EU have played no part in my thinking, or to my knowledge that of anyone else who has been involved with the Bill. On the contrary, I have taken great pains to avoid any clash with the EU. Lord knows, this country plays by the rules, often to its cost—certainly, to the desperate cost of our pig farmers.

It is fair to say that the Government have acted in response to Conservative and, at times, Liberal Democrat initiatives on food labelling. Is it not about time the Government stepped up to their duty to match the Opposition parties' determination to deliver the right food labelling laws for the people of our country and to lead on the issue in the rest of Europe? My submission is that, with our experience and expertise in food labelling, this country should seek to lead Europe on that issue. If passed, my Bill would enable the Government to adopt a trail-blazing line in their continuing, but tortuous—with no timetable or sign of a speedy or even timely resolution—discussions with Europe. This country's food labelling laws could be the standard for the rest of Europe. I am sure that our European partners would welcome our initiative and leadership.

I learned to my surprise that when the Minister of Agriculture made his cheap and churlish remark about my Bill, he had not taken the trouble to read it. Since then, he has had it impressed on him by consumer and producer organisations outside the House, which have a great interest in my Bill becoming law, that it is a serious proposal for a series of measures that deserve close and sympathetic attention and support from the Government.

I was therefore pleased to see that a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had responded to a journalist's request for a comment the day after the Minister's remark in the House. When asked about my Bill, the spokesman said that MAFF was

sympathetic to what Mr. O'Brien is trying to achieve. On the EU and its relationship to the Bill, I do not understand how it is possible for clause 3 to be in contravention of EU law when all the UK's food production and animal welfare standards comply, at the very least, with all applicable EU laws and regulations.

As we know, not only do we police and enforce those regulations rigorously—in contrast, sadly, to many of our fellow member states—but we implement them sooner. Witness Denmark and its decision not to implement, under the same EU directive applicable to us, the banning of stall and tethered pigs until 2006 or 2007.

The UK has an honourable record of going much further than the EU directive in animal welfare measures. The Government can be concerned about EU law contravention only where we go further, with higher food production and animal welfare standards.

If that is so, are the Government honestly saying that for the sake of keeping sweet with our European partners, we must allow into this country food products whose production and animal welfare standards are inferior to those imposed on our own farmers and other food producers?

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, and I am sure that he is not suggesting that we should stop food products coming in if they comply only with EU standards. The point that he is making so effectively is that we are entitled to have higher standards in this country. Under EU law, a member state is always so entitled. All that his Bill asks is that consumers should know whether the product that they are choosing complies only with EU standards, or also with the higher UK standards.

Mr. O'Brien

That is exactly right. The terms of the Bill have been deliberately designed, in my best attempt to keep them simple, clear and honest, to give information. The Bill is not prescriptive or penal. I find it baffling that the Government might not allow the Bill and clause 3 to progress. It is critical that our consumers are aware of products whose production and processing has been inferior to the standards applied in this country.

Existing EU law is flexible in its interpretation—a point that has been touched on. For instance, as part of the Agriculture Minister's doomed attempt to appease the French Government over the illegal ban on British beef, the Government acceded to French demands that British beef should be labelled with its country of origin. The European Commission ruled that that was legal under EU law.

We are not alone in wanting the Government to stand up for our national interests within the EU. I shall not take up the time of the House with the Swiss example of negative labelling as Switzerland is outside the EU and the measure would indeed contravene EU law, which my Bill avoids, but I shall highlight the example of Sweden—an EU member state, that has not been taken to the European court.

Swedish Farm Assured—SFA—announced on 28 October last year that all meat products bearing the new SFA logo would be traceable by consumers with internet access. An individual code on each packet would allow a consumer to visit the SFA site, www.healthy-tasty.com, trace the product back to the specific Swedish farm on which it was produced, and find out about the method of its production and transportation to the shop of purchase. Announcing the scheme, SFA stated:

We believe that to be competitive in this market we have to provide something extra—to us that means consumer confidence. SFA can provide detailed information on where food comes from and how it is produced. Perhaps the most telling example is the latest French one. Mr. Jacques Lemaître, president of the National Pork Federation in France, and Mr. Jérôme Bédier, president of the French Federation of Commerce and Distribution, signed an agreement of intent on 9 February to allow the identification of the origin of pork sold throughout retail outlets in France. The arrangements will initially apply only to fresh pork, but it is intended that they will be extended to processed products in due course. Under the scheme, traceability is assured throughout the stages of production, slaughtering and processing, and retail outlets will provide the information. That is expected to be possible for approximately 85 per cent. of the pigmeat that is currently produced in France. Mr. Bédier said: This is a natural development stemming from what has been put into place for fruit and vegetables and— pitifully, as we know— for beef. Consumers want to know more and more about the origin of the products they buy. Mr. Lemaître said: Meat producers are quite happy for the customers to know where their animals come from; it is an important factor in gaining confidence in our products. There is also the amazingly termed "swine stamp" in Brazil. That is relevant because of the World Trade Organisation for the global marketplace in which pigmeat competes. The Swedish and French examples also state that they believe that their new provisions conform to WTO requirements. Unlike France and Sweden, will the United Kingdom, under this Government, impede our producers' competitiveness while the next trade round grinds on? If so, liberalisation without better food labelling will mean that any producer who does not produce to the lowest cost will be lost in the price-driven global marketplace.

Clause 4 covers the method of marketing or labelling foods. It provides that food for sale should show the information that the Bill requires on the food's packaging; on a label attached to the food's packaging; on a label that is clearly visible through the food's packaging. That is straightforward. As we know from the plethora of labels that bombard consumers about other matters on foods, and in the instances of good practice under voluntary arrangements, information about country of origin and standards of production is sometimes seen.

Clause 4(1)(d) covers foods that are not pre-packed or packaged. It would require a shelf marker or show card in a clearly visible location. The provision relates to loose goods such as fruit, vegetables, and jointed and cut meats in butchers' shops.

To ensure accurate, reliable and therefore honest information at the point of sale to the "ultimate customer"—the defined term in the food labelling regulations of 1996—clause 4(2) covers circumstances in which food is sold on in the wholesale chain. It provides that the information required by the Bill appears on the "outermost packaging" of the wholesale pack of food. It encourages, but does not make mandatory, the provision of that information in commercial documents, which relate to the food. That information is currently known and, in today's commercial world, it is often held electronically by individuals and enterprises in the supply chain. Clause 4(2) tries to ensure that the information is simply captured and passed along the chain in a clear, reliable and honest manner.

Some retailers have expressed the anxiety that the Bill would mean extra cost. I do not believe that, because the information is factual and has to be known by all parts of the supply chain. Ensuring that the information is captured, collated and printed on labels throughout the supply process is simply an administrative matter. There are examples that show that such labelling is easily possible. Ten days ago, the Tesco chain, which has launched a scheme to help British farmers to sell more produce in the 650 Tesco stores, agreed to label clearly the country of origin under the Tesco farming initiative 2000.

Extending such a scheme countrywide will require the force of law, and I am in discussion with a company that has compiled a database of all ingredients of all foods. It tells me that data on country of origin and methods of production are readily available. In today's information technology world, it is economic and reliable to access, use and display the information.

The Bill intends to achieve simple and clear, as well as honest, labelling. Consumers do not want to be faced with a mass of information that is difficult to interpret or requires too much time to assimilate. Although this is best left to detailed consideration in Committee, discussions that I have held with all sections of the food industry and, above all, with consumers, suggest that accreditation through, for example, a kitemark, may be the best way in which to proceed.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Would not a Union jack be enough?

Mr. O'Brien

A Union jack is always a welcome sign to—I hope—all hon. Members. However, it has been abused in recent times. Examples of that have already been given. We need to think of something new that would engender absolute confidence. That is the point of the Bill, welcome though I always find the Union jack.

A kitemark that can be protected, policed and not abused may be the best way to proceed. In addition, quality could be certified by labels such as ENG for England and WAL for Wales or, in due time, SCO for Scotland and NI for Northern Ireland. They could provide accreditation and certification that the food came from a particular country or region of origin and had been produced according to its production standards—that is, the minimum legal requirements applicable to that food in that country.

There has been considerable discussion and that has led to the National Farmers Union, Tesco and others taking action to develop a British farm assurance mark—a kitemark aimed at informing shoppers which food products are reared or grown nationally. That approach would also help to cover the other example addressed by clause 4: food sold to consumers by catering establishments.

Subsection (3) would ensure that consumers being served food in catering establishments would have the opportunity to inform themselves of country of origin and standards of production either before or when that food was presented. Restaurant menus would not be required to carry a food label for country of origin and standards of production for every item, but they would be have to carry—as is already the case for genetically modified foods—a statement, kitemark or other emblem stating the country or countries of origin of the major ingredients of all items and whether production standards inferior to this country's might have been involved.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman for a little while and I am puzzled by clause 4(3). Is he saying that menus would have to say whether an item contained monosodium glutamate, E numbers and everything else? That would run to pages before a customer got to the list of food.

Mr. O'Brien

The hon. Gentleman's point would have been valid had he been in the Chamber a little earlier, although I am sure that he was kept away purely by other commitments. The provision would apply only to major ingredients—ones that form 25 per cent. by weight of a food. I made that point previously and, if there is any deficiency with his learned skills in respect of interpreting the Bill, I should make it clear that that is certainly what is intended. However, I must say to him in all candour that I am not convinced that the Bill's drafting necessarily achieves that aim as there is a doubt: catering organisations may not be consumers in the normal sense of the word and restaurant meals may not be precisely food "presented for sale", which would therefore be labelled in the manner envisaged under the Bill. Again, I would welcome the House's assistance.

Clauses 5 and 6 deal with normal matters and I draw the House's attention to the fact that Mr. Alex Johnstone has introduced to the Scottish Parliament a Bill relating to meat labelling and country of origin. There may be difficulties in this example between England and Wales and Scotland following devolution—let alone between this country and the rest of Europe—but, timetabling and the approval of both Houses of Parliament permitting, the two measures could ride in tandem and ensure a level playing field.

I shall move toward a finish. As I have taken a number of interventions, my speech has run on a little longer than I expected.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

Will the hon. Gentleman take a further intervention?

Mr. O'Brien


Angela Smith

We are approaching the end of our proceedings and I may have the opportunity to contribute so I should be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments on the drafting of the Bill. Clause 3 refers to when production standards for that food are different from, and less demanding than, the production standards applicable in England and Wales. I am not sure whether that wording would stand up in court. Has it appeared in any other legislation and does he have examples? Is he confident that it will work?

Mr. O'Brien

I am not aware that those particular words have been lifted from existing legislation and it would be a legitimate matter for the Committee to consider. I believe that they were the most felicitous words that I and others could devise to ensure that we give effect to the Bill's principles and clause 3 in particular.

The Government are clearly aware of the great concern among consumers. Their spokesman in the other place, Baroness Hayman, recently launched a consultation on food labelling that happens to coincide with the debate on the Bill. She has said that she believes that consumers have a right to clear, informative labels to help them make "informed choices" about foods.

It is clear what consumers want, so why wait? The Government should use the opportunity of the Bill to deliver what consumers and producers are crying out for on food labelling. I do not believe that it is necessary to wait for yet another consultation period. The Minister for the Cabinet Office said on the "Today" programme this week: I don't yet trust the labelling that I see on foods. She also said: We have got to have clear labelling for people to make their own choices. The Government now have a chance to do that.

Mr. Tyler

The hon. Gentleman has quoted a number of Ministers, but I wonder whether he has carefully considered the Prime Minister's speech to the National Farmers Union, the main theme of which was the importance of ensuring that British consumers have access to good quality information about good quality food. That is also the theme of the hon. Gentleman's Bill.

I shall take this opportunity—as I may not get another—to quote the Prime Minister on that occasion. He said that the Government envisage a trebling of the area under organic farming by 2006. The Prime Minister's words may come to haunt him if the Government do not give the hon. Gentleman's Bill—and, dare I say it, my Bill—a fair wind.

Mr. O'Brien

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman's intervention gave him the opportunity to cover a slightly wider point, but I shall not pursue that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for fear of losing your support.

I intended to refer to the Government's present policy on genetically modified foods. However, I am conscious of the time and others want to contribute, so rather than go into that in detail I shall just cite the phrase, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. What is sauce for GM foods must be right for other foods: they should also have labelling information about the country of origin and standards of production. If GM food is about anything, it is about standards of production as much as about ingredients. However, I shall refrain from commenting on what some call the Prime Minister's policy U-turn on GM foods.

My Bill would protect the well-being and freedom of choice of our citizens, and, above all, the health and safety of our children, who eat every type of food. It would lend great weight to this country's proud tradition of leading the world in animal welfare. It would be viewed positively by everyone, and is a rare chance for the House as a whole—and the Government if they truly care about honesty in food labelling—to achieve a political win-win. I commend the Bill to the House, and I hope that it has a speedy passage on to the statute book.

1.17 pm
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to contribute to the debate. I welcome the initiative of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), and I am grateful to him for echoing a question that I asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food about the labelling of pigmeat.

The Bill is somewhat schizophrenic—and I am not sure whether a Committee can sort out schizophrenia. If I am asked to serve on the Committee considering the Bill, I hope that I can do my bit to put the patient in a better state. Those are slightly harsh words, but I think the Bill has a Euro-clobbering dimension, even though that may not have been intended. To get the Bill to be more Euro-compliant will prove quite taxing, although there is absolutely no doubt that the current labelling regime is highly prejudicial to British farmers and British agricultural production.

I have already given the House a brief account of my experience in trying to buy British bacon in a Somerfield supermarket in Stevenage, and I now have the opportunity to mention it at greater length. There was a cabinet full of bacon, but it proved almost impossible to buy a product that was recognisably compliant with the high standards of British pigmeat production that the hon. Gentleman rightly wants to protect. I found the words "produce of Europe", in minuscule characters, on most items; in other cases, it was "Dutch", "Danish", or something else. It was difficult to find any British bacon—but there at the bottom of the cabinet was a packet on which "Wiltshire cured" was written in extremely large letters. When I picked it up, I saw yet again, in the tiniest possible writing on the underside, "produce of Europe". I do not think that that necessarily meant that curing in the Wiltshire style had taken place in Wiltshire, and it certainly did not mean that the pigs had been reared in a way that complied with this country's higher standards of animal welfare. Eventually, I managed to buy some organic bacon at the store down the road.

We are told that there are currently 31 protected labels—"Wiltshire cured", "Newcastle Brown", "Scottish salmon" and so on—but that does not alter the fact that there are far more than 31 misleading labels. It is a nightmare for the trading standards officer who genuinely wants to prevent consumers from being misled, and, because the Bill makes a real effort to confront the problem, I welcome it. I did, however, describe the Bill as schizophrenic, and I want to identify some of the problems associated with it.

Clause 2—which is, in a sense, the core of the Bill—states: Food which is sold to a consumer shall be marked or labelled with … the country … of origin. Currently, British producers have every right to tell consumers that their food was produced in Britain: indeed, they have the capacity to use any kind of labelling that they want to use, as long as it is not regarded as market-obstructive.

I have much sympathy with those who are angry about the fact that the Union jack can be used by those who merely packaged the product at the end of the process. Let me say in passing that in one part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland—which, admittedly, is not directly affected by the Bill—the Union jack, unfortunately, has other connotations. Producers there have tried to get around the problem by featuring a bunch of violets in an attempt to convey a Northern Ireland identity; but most people in Northern Ireland still do not know what the logo really means.

That is the difficulty with labelling. What does a logo say about the product? Requiring a product to be labelled with the particulars of its country of origin is very different from permitting it. Under the Bill, if producers in America, for instance, have not stated on the label that 28 per cent. of the product comes from Mexico, 32 per cent. from Peru and the rest from the United States, the food in question will not be eligible to be sold. I deliberately cited countries outside the common market because strong country-of-origin regulations often apply to products imported to the European Union, although the Bill does not really deal with whether those regulations are consistent with the regulations mentioned in it.

Again, in the EU itself, the Bill might take us well out of kilter with what other countries would expect. The Bill's emphasis and compulsion would mean that such a product would not be eligible to be sold in this country. Obviously, it would be a strongly restrictive way in which to deal with the matter.

Mr. Letwin

indicated dissent.

Mr. McWalter

I see that the hon. Gentleman is expressing dissent. I will be happy to take an intervention if he thinks that I have got something fundamentally wrong.

Mr. Letwin

I am grateful for that invitation as I was about to ask the hon. Gentleman to allow me to intervene. I do not understand why he believes that it is restrictive to force people to declare what they are selling. Regarded in its positive light, what is the nature of the restriction in the Bill?

Mr. McWalter

If we could introduce the policy in an all-European Union way, one bit of the EU would not say, "You must meet some additional condition that you do not have to meet in the rest of the market." The Government's general aim is to achieve an all-EU system of labelling, working through the Codex committee to get the whole of the EU to agree on co-ordinated rules about country of origin—but if one country decides to make it 33 per cent., and another, 50 per cent., that will introduce precisely the constraints on market lubricity that the free market was designed to avoid.

Mr. Letwin

I accept that both from an international point of view under Codex and in relation to the EU itself, there is every advantage in universalisation. No one is challenging that. The question is: in what sense is it a restriction? Where is the precedent for supposing that it is a restriction in law to force transparency concerning country of origin, or any other marking? I know of no such instance.

Mr. McWalter

It would be a restriction if other countries, in producing and labelling their products said, "Gosh. We cannot now send the product to Britain because it has imposed an extra condition." Perhaps they have not been so careful about their tracing, which, as we have heard, is at least possible in places such as Sweden, so there is an element of compulsion.

I want British consumers to get to the position where, instead of being confronted by a cabinet full of stuff and having no idea where it came from, or what the welfare conditions governing its production were, they know about the products and can support British farmers. However, if we are to make the Bill Euro-compliant, as opposed to Euro-clobbering, we may have to be much more careful about such unilateral compulsion. The Committee will have to examine whether it can get round that potentially major difficulty.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien

I emphasise that there is no attempt on my part to engage in any Euro-clobbering. In response to the hon. Gentleman's intervention, I said that Euro-compliance would be required, but, although I acknowledge the technical and cogent point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the issue is about leadership. Europe is looking for a steer. We have the expertise and experience to give that leadership. What really concerns me—the hon. Gentleman's comments do so, too—is that the Government, by failing to support a Bill that would provide an opportunity for change, are hardly demonstrating that they wish to go any faster than at the slowest pace, supporting the lowest common denominator of the EU. My feeling is that, on this issue, we have a real opportunity to demonstrate leadership, and that others will want to follow us.

Mr. McWalter

I am not convinced that the hon. Gentleman is quite right about that. The Government are taking a lead on the labelling initiative precisely because of the major difficulties precipitated by the BSE crisis and other events. Nevertheless, I think that the hon. Gentleman's Bill will help in achieving the objective that he described, and that the Bill and this debate are a wonderful mechanism for concentrating Agriculture Ministers' minds, so that, when next we ask them questions, they will be able to show that they really are giving such a lead.

I am sorry to say that clause 2 is undoubtedly not Euro-compliant. However, I look forward to debating that point in Committee and to examining the relevant European statutes, to determine whether there is a way in which the sense of the clause could be reformulated and reintegrated into the legislation.

Some countries will say that, for some products, country of origin is not a relevant issue. Clause 2 would require every producer of every commodity to provide a type of traceability. Such a requirement should not apply to many products, and producers would regard one as only an incumbrance and an irrelevance.

Mr. Bermingham

Before my hon. Friend leaves clause 2, I should like to deal with the matter of a 25 per cent. threshold. Clause 2(1)(b) states that where the food has more than one ingredient, particulars of the country or countries of origin of each major ingredient must be included on the label. In jam or preservative, for example, 40 or even 50 per cent. of the ingredients may come from one country, whereas the other 50 or 60 per cent. come from five or six other countries. The label would be wholly misleading if it said that the product was English, as it could be made essentially from ingredients from France, Germany and elsewhere.

Mr. McWalter

I was not planning to dwell on clause 2(1)(b), but my hon. Friend's point is correct. However, I think that the Bill would require only ingredients meeting the 40 per cent. threshold to be labelled. I might also add that such a jam would be rather luxurious compared with those that are usually found in my household.

Clause 3 is currently very unsatisfactory, providing for labelling of food that has been produced to a quality that is "less demanding than" those applying in England and Wales. It is a clear example of how concentration on one commodity—pigmeat—could create major difficulties for other products. We all think that—although there is still room for improvement, and there is an awful lot more room for improvement in mainland Europe—British pigmeat and bacon are produced to the highest animal welfare standards.

Let us, however, consider the case of chocolate. If the provision in clause 3 were applied elsewhere, the Belgians, for example, could say, "Your chocolate is not chocolate at all. Furthermore, your product is produced to standards less demanding than ours." The Belgians would require us to label our inferior chocolate stating, "This is not chocolate", or "This chocolate is produced to lower standards". Some time ago, I had the pleasure of visiting a Belgian brewery. The Belgians were strongly of the view that their production methods resulted in beer of an infinitely higher standard than our British methods. Although we all know that our British beer is massively superior to Belgian beer, they feel that the hygiene standards and the quality of the hops that they use meet much higher specifications.

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton)

As I represent Burton, I must say that the quality of water in Burton produces our excellent beer.

Mr. McWalter

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I agree that we should have the highest regard for the quality of water in Burton, particularly when it has been adjusted in a British brewery. However, attempting to assess whether a product is produced to a more or less demanding specification lands us in one hell of a mess.

Clause 3 states that if food is produced to a less demanding standard, a reference to that fact shall appear on the mark or label of that food. So the manufacturer has to state on the label that the food has been produced to standard B or standard Z rather than describing the production method. It is unfeasible to expect manufacturers of products to state explicitly that they produce lower-quality products.

Having talked about the schizophrenic character of the Bill and drawn attention to the provisions that seem particularly Euro-clobbering—

Mr. Bermingham

In relation to beer, has the hon. Gentleman considered the position of McEwans brewery in Scotland having to label its beer as being of a lower standard than English beer? That would cause a riot.

Mr. McWalter

I take my hon. Friend's point. The reference to beer has got several of my hon. Friends extremely excited. Opposition Members have not joined in, but I have no doubt that they are also experts in the subject. Be that as it may, it is clear that the proposal would create difficulties.

Let me draw another dimension of the Bill to the attention of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien). Some mechanisms in Europe might achieve his aims without violating European law. In Italy, there is a chain of supermarkets—I think that it is called Italmart—that sells only Italian produce: its wine counter, for example, sells no French or German wine. That method of favouring domestic production does not seem to fall foul of European regulations. Perhaps we should have a supermarket called Anglomart.

The current voluntary system of labelling gives people the opportunity to exercise choice. The hon. Gentleman may have missed one crucial point. We must establish a distinction between requiring people to label goods and prosecuting people if they label them in a misleading way or make an untrue claim about a product's ancestry—for example, by giving the impression that a brand of gin comes from Plymouth when it has never been near that part of the country. Incidentally, I believe that that label is one of the 31 protected labels.

It is important to prosecute those who mislead, and to encourage, support and give Government help to those who wish to provide labels that will allow people to exercise their choice of British products produced to a higher specification. At the same time, we should try to make progress in achieving better labelling throughout Europe. The Bill contains some useful provisions, but after it has been rid of its schizophrenic character, I suspect that some of its clauses will no longer be with us.

1.41 pm
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I speak as a sponsor of what is a good Bill. It will be popular with consumers and producers, and the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) drew attention to the fact that it had received the specific support of and co-operation from the Consumers Association and the National Farmers Union. My constituency is not primarily an agricultural one, but I have pig producers and farmers in it, and they have been desperately hard hit by the agricultural crisis affecting the whole country. I well understand that other hon. Members have much wider experience of the problems, but I wish to emphasise that we face a practical problem now and the Bill is not simply an academic exercise.

The Bill is popular without being populist and would have several desirable outcomes. I wish to comment on some of the incipient criticism of the Bill that it is in some way Europhobic. If my reading of the Bill had suggested that, I would not have been a sponsor of it. Although I hate to say so, perhaps I am to some extent an alibi for the hon. Member for Eddisbury, should he come under fire from some hon. Members on that point. I do not doubt that some people will support the Bill for Europhobic reasons, but that is nothing to do with me, guv.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) has had the clearest assurances—ones that I would also wish to hear—that it is the intention that if the Bill goes forward, endeavours will be made to make it Euro-compliant. There is no point spending time and passing legislation that is not. I would be just as disappointed if the Bill were to be kicked into touch because it was thought to be Europhobic as I would be if I thought that it was receiving support because it was Europhobic. We need to make it clear that the Bill is not about Europhobia, it is about protecting British production, industry and consumers, and ensuring that an element of informed choice is available to those who purchase from shops in this country.

Mr. Tyler

I endorse the point that my hon. Friend has just made. Does not the fact that other member states have similar legislation give the lie to the suggestion that the basic premise for the Bill is Europhobic? Those other member states have greatly benefited their consumers and producers as a result.

Mr. Stunell

That is true, and we have already heard about the provisions being made in Sweden and France and the retail method of tackling the issue in Italy. Perhaps some entrepreneurs may read Hansard and see an opening for such retail practice in this country. For every member state—and others, such as the Swiss—there is a serious issue in ensuring that consumers have the knowledge to make an informed choice about the food products on sale. The Bill goes a long way in the right direction to achieve that.

I am a keen supporter of what might be called the European project, which I hope will go forward further and faster. However, I do not believe that every rule and regulation currently in place is right. I am not afraid to say when things are wrong and need to be changed. It is clear that gaps and deficiencies exist in the regulations covering food retailing, standards and labelling. I am happy to support the Bill, as it will push forward the process of correcting those deficiencies.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead made a valid point when he said that the Bill offers an opportunity to exert a little pressure on the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to be more proactive. The hon. Member for Eddisbury said that he wanted the Government to take a lead in European negotiations on labelling. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that that is exactly what the Government are doing, and that they will use the Bill as leverage in those negotiations. I hope that they will tell their European counterparts, "We've got trouble at t'mill, and the lads aren't happy. There's a Bill going through Parliament and we need to press the case it makes." The Minister should not reject the reform proposed by the Bill, but embrace it and take it forward.

The Bill is not perfect. I am exploring the wording of a ten-minute rule Bill that I want to introduce on retail packaging, and I have discovered that the matter is not as easy as I suspected. The hon. Member for Eddisbury is to be congratulated: he has arrived here in a flash of light after the Eddisbury by-election and produced out of his back pocket a Bill that is good, even if it is not perfect.

The Bill is a worthwhile step in the right direction. I support it and am happy to sponsor it. It is certainly good enough to merit a Committee stage.

Mr. Bermingham

The substance of the Bill can be found in clauses 2 and 3. Will the hon. Gentleman tell me how any court in the land would interpret clause 3(1)? Against which codes, practices or other measures will the qualitative standards of clause 3(2) be set? Clause 3 is a nightmare.

Mr. Stunell

The hon. Gentleman seems to have made an eloquent plea for inclusion in the Committee that will consider the Bill. I should be more than happy to serve on the Committee with him, which would mean that we could debate the point in more detail.

The Bill is not perfect, but it is good enough to go into Committee and for the Government to use as a lever in Europe. I urge them to do so.

1.48 pm
Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton)

I am pleased to participate in this debate, as the many farmers in my constituency are very worried about the present state of agriculture. They, and the consumers in my area, are keen to ensure that good and fair labelling accurately sets out the country of origin of produce on sale in shops and supermarkets.

My only reservation about the Bill has been expressed by other hon. Members, and it has to do with its compatibility with EU law. The National Farmers Union wrote to me and emphasised that the application of the legislation to the selling of food to catering establishments as opposed to supermarkets and other shops are technical issues which can be examined closely at a later stage in the parliamentary process. I should be interested to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister whether that is a possibility.

I was reassured by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) that he was not trying to skirmish with the EU. I can understand that that might be the reason for a Bill such as this, as many Opposition Members seem to believe that this Government have invented the current crisis in the agriculture industry. We are picking up the pieces of many years of problems in the industry, and labelling is part of that. It comes from the problems of BSE and the fact that, thankfully, we have brilliant welfare standards. I have visited pig farms in my constituency where the people who work with the animals are delighted that conditions are now better.

The better welfare standards that this country enjoys, certainly for pigs, were extra to the European requirements. We implemented the regulations to a higher standard than was the case in other parts of Europe. That is sometimes misinterpreted to mean that other European countries are behind us. They are, but that is because we chose to implement the proposals as we did. I am pleased that we did, but unless we sell and market our produce here, showing that we produce the animals according to better standards, our farmers will be at a disadvantage against their European competitors.

The situation in agriculture is desperate, as Ministers are well aware. I welcomed the announcement at the beginning of February about tightening up the labelling guidelines. We all want to be able to go into a supermarket and know what we are buying and where it comes from. It is difficult to look at bacon on the shelves and know, without studying it—perhaps even getting the reading glasses out, for those of my age and older—where it was reared and processed.

The news this morning referred to the launch today of farmers markets in London, with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in attendance. That is an important initiative which has been adopted in my own constituency. It provides the opportunity to consumers to buy direct from farmers in this country and know where their food is coming from. Supermarkets are also being pressed to ensure that their labelling is correct.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) touched on my next point. If the Bill were enacted and we labelled our food in accordance with its provisions, could we insist that other countries labelled theirs similarly? As my hon. Friend said, it is not a case simply of Europe but of the rest of the world. Could we tell American producers to label their products in a certain way to sell them in the United Kingdom? Or would the Bill affect only food produced in this country? Is there any difference between what the Bill would do it if referred to labelling British produce only, the Swedish Farm Assured mark, the recent NFU kitemark initiative and the Meat and Livestock Commission Quality Standard Pork Mark? Would not the Bill simply duplicate what the NFU has already done?

Mr. Stephen O'Brien

I wish to clarify the position. The Swedish Farm Assured mark specifically includes the method of production in the information. Traceability includes being able to check on the methods of production in a positive and factual sense. That is the difference between the Swedish scheme and the NFU's current proposals for a kitemark.

Mrs. Dean

I would have thought that the NFU's kitemarks would be designed to show that the product was British and had been produced according to the standards of this country. Therefore, it would differ little from the Swedish system. However, I am willing to receive further information on that.

Mr. Bermingham

I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend. From the wording of clause 2, I assume that any food sold in this country would have to bear a label showing the country of origin and the country of manufacture. The NFU's point about kitemarks is a good one. We would know for certain whether food was English produced and manufactured.

Mrs. Dean

I fully support the NFU's proposals for kitemarking and I congratulate it on its initiative. I also welcome the Government's intervention in trying to ensure that we know the country of origin of the products that we buy in our supermarkets. I welcome any proposal that would help agriculture in this country and the farmers in my constituency.

If the Bill progresses, I hope that it will be practical and will meet EU regulations. I question whether Swedish Farm Assured is any different from the NFU kitemark. It is important that we do all we can to help farmers. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments.

1.57 pm
Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I do not want to speak for more than a few minutes because I have somewhat justifiably been accused of volubility. We have already debated the Bill for some time, and I am anxious to see it proceed.

I wish to make three brief points. The first is purely technical. I do not understand the arguments of the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter)—which were made in good faith—that it would be a restriction of trade to impose transparency requirements where there is a non-differential. I do not believe that the jurisprudence would support that interpretation and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) does not believe it. However, the hon. Gentleman may be right and the answer can be teased out in Committee.

Mr. McWalter

If one buys a packet of peanuts, the label often says that they are the product of several countries. Nobody is that fussed about which countries they come from. Such products might need a wholly different tracing system if they are to arrive on our shelves at all. That is just one example among many where the country of origin is not currently made known.

Mr. Letwin

The hon. Gentleman neglects the fact that a particular measure—this is as true under the Codex Alimentarius as it is under the European provisions—that imposes a cost on producers is not a prima facie reason for classing it as a restriction of trade if the effect is non-differential between the imported and the home product. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman takes the view that he does. Much more importantly, I do not understand why the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food takes it. It will have its reasons—they are probably not the hon. Gentleman's reasons—but I think that it has been misadvised. However, that point will come out in Committee and I hope that it will eventually be satisfactorily resolved.

My second technical point is about clause 2. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) would probably agree that the rest of the Bill could be ditched if clause 2 could stand. It is the bit that matters. We want to ensure that people are not misled—I use that word advisedly—into buying things that they think are produced in Britain, but are not in any layman's definition produced in this country. That aim is shared with the Ministry and with the Prime Minister, to judge by their comments, and I take what they say at face value.

If a restriction in trade is imposed as a result of the form in which the aim in clause 2 is achieved, many other modalities are feasible. One, for example, would be to reverse the burden of the clause, and make it a ban on people labelling food in a certain way—such as labelling it "British"—except in certain circumstances. That would avoid imposing on people who import goods the necessity of labelling them as having come from other places. There are thousands of such modalities, and no doubt much drafting work can be done, but I do not have the slightest doubt that clause 2 could be drafted to be entirely consistent with the Codex, with European regulations and indeed with the spirit of competition.

My third point is overwhelmingly the most important. Normally I try not to speak in terms that are pejorative or party political, beyond the genuine disputes between us about matters of policy. However, on an administrative basis, there is a disgrace. It is acknowledged by all parties that the Bill seeks, however hamfistedly and improperly—we shall find that out in Committee—to achieve an aim that the Agriculture Minister and the Prime Minister are on record as seeking to achieve.

It is not as if the Bill descended on the House two and a half hours ago without prior notice. It was published, and it was known that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury would introduce it. The Ministry had ample opportunity to approach my hon. Friend, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire and other colleagues who are concerned with these matters and who have corresponded extensively about it, and talk through the Bill.

When I assisted in the promotion of the Referendums Bill as a private Member's measure, I received exactly that courtesy from the Home Office. It contacted my colleagues and I and we discussed the Bill. We did not reach an agreement, but at least there was a constructive effort between the Department and the Bill's promoter to turn it into the best possible Bill in the Department's view, within the limits of the promoter's willingness. It could then be debated in the House. My hon. Friend assures me that no such process occurred in this case. Why not? Why has not the Bill been redrafted in such a way that it comes as close as possible to being compliant? There is no excuse for that when the Agriculture Minister maintains that he cares about achieving that result.

I am sure that the Minister of State will tell me that she and her colleagues spent a great deal of time with bureaucrats in Brussels trying to improve things, and I have no doubt that that is true and that Ministers have genuinely been trying to get a European result. However, here we have a potential UK-based result that may take effect much sooner, and the Ministry has failed to take it seriously. That will be recognised as a disgrace by farmers in my constituency and those of other Members from all parties. It is an extraordinary and unreasonable way to conduct these affairs.

I am grateful that I am not the Agriculture Minister and so are farmers. I accept that he has a ghastly role. However, if I were the Minister, the first thing that I would have done when I heard that my hon. Friend was promoting the Bill was to call him in for a chat and ask, "What are you trying to achieve, and can we achieve it?" This is an ideal opportunity; it is a legislative slot.

Mrs. Dean

Does the hon. Gentleman know whether the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) contacted the Ministry to seek advice before he drafted the Bill?

Mr. Letwin

No, but no less a body than the National Farmers Union did so on my hon. Friend's behalf. It is pretty extraordinary that although the Minister knew that the Bill was being supported by organisations representing farmers interests, such as the NFU and the National Pig Association, as my hon. Friend showed, and by consumers interest groups, he did not try to iron out problems in the Bill as far as possible before this stage. I accept that the Standing Committee will do more.

The Government must want the result that the Bill would achieve, so I can only assume that they have become so terrified of any domestic action that they simply bring down the barriers on any discussion of domestic action. All activity must be focused on discussions in Brussels and other Governments in the Codex. That is an extraordinary error of judgment and a bad way to go about administration.

We have the opportunity to take domestic action that will have an immediate effect. Even if there is a scintilla of doubt about the Bill's compliance and it is challenged, that challenge will take many years. I am sure that the Minister of State knows that it would also take many years for her to persuade Governments in the EU and the Codex negotiations to change anything material. We are dealing with a contrast between fast action and slow action and the Ministry has decided to shred the fast action and go for the slow action. That is particularly bad because the Prime Minister and the Agriculture Minister should not be saying that they want urgent action when they are ensuring that there will be no urgent action.

Mr. Bermingham

The hon. Gentleman heard me say earlier that clauses 2 and 3 are extremely badly drafted; they will not stand up in any court of law. Would he not be sensible to persuade his hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) to withdraw the Bill until someone can redraft those clauses?

Mr. Letwin

The hon. Gentleman might well be right to say that clauses 2 and 3 are badly drafted. However, first, the Ministry had the opportunity to help to redraft them before the Bill was introduced; and secondly, the clauses can still be redrafted—the mistake can be cured in Committee. There is no reason to withdraw the Bill, whereas there is every reason to press ahead with it and find out whether something can be fashioned. It is up to MAFF to exert itself to get the Bill into as good a shape as possible. If, contrary to advice received from the House of Commons Library and relevant QCs, it turns out to be genuinely impossible to fashion legislation that will work, my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury and I will both accept that. However, that is not what has happened so far and the dereliction of duty that has occurred must quickly be redressed.

Mr. McWalter

I seems to me that, in many ways, today's debate has moved matters on to the point where we feel far more confident that there is a sense of unity and purpose. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will lose his enthusiasm for lambasting and get on with the work of advancing the debate.

Mr. Letwin

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. If the Minister tells us that the Government will now adopt a constructive attitude to the Bill, I shall be happy to withhold further lambasting. My lambasting is to be regarded in an historical light if, as I hope she will, the Minister tells us that the Government intend to proceed in a spirit of conciliation. In pursuit of that fresh spirit, I shall now sit down.

2.7 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on his success in the ballot, on his choice of subject—one that is of great interest to every consumer and farmer in this country—and on his excellent and lucid speech in which he dealt convincingly with most of the objections raised. No one who has spoken in this excellent debate has attacked the principle of the Bill; the concerns expressed have been about points of detail. I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) say that he hoped to serve on the Standing Committee; I, too, hope that that will be possible.

As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) went to the heart of several important issues relating to the Bill. The measure is timely and it neatly unites the interests of both consumers and farmers. As several hon. Members have said, there is growing outrage among the public about defects in the current labelling laws. When consumers come to appreciate the true situation, they are shocked. It is wrong that products that do not contain a single ingredient that has been produced in this country may be labelled as British. That is outrageous, and many would regard such practices as a fraud on consumers who are deceived into buying the goods.

As concern over the scandal mounts, many organisations have tried to respond on a voluntary basis. I welcome the steps taken in respect of the British kitemark label and the co-operation between the National Farmers Union, the Meat and Livestock Commission, the Food and Drink Federation and the British Retail Consortium. All those bodies are doing good work and they have our support. The more that can be achieved on a voluntary basis, the better, but it would be better still if we could take the route signposted by my hon. Friend's Bill. Agriculture now faces its worst crisis for two generations. One response to that crisis should be the introduction, with no qualifications, of honesty in labelling—a principle to which the Conservative party is wholly committed.

Individual sectors of agriculture have been mentioned, including pig farming. I was disturbed to learn during the debate that a complaint originating within the House of Commons has been made about the protest that has been in Parliament square for the past month. I cannot believe that that complaint originated from an Opposition Member, and in that I believe that I can speak with some confidence for the Liberal Democrats as well.

I hope that if a complaint has been made by a Labour Member, steps will be taken to withdraw it, and that the Minister will make it clear that until the pig farmers who are protesting outside have had their concerns reasonably addressed, as the Prime Minister suggested would happen when he spoke to the NFU conference, the Labour party is happy for their entirely peaceful protest to continue.

There is concern about poultry meat, as we heard, and about some of the beef produced in France, which was the subject of two recent reports. Last year the European Commission inspectors exposed illegal feeding practices taking place in France, and in the past few weeks another European Commission report has uncovered serious deficiencies in the way in which France deals with suspected cases of BSE.

Meat produced under those conditions is entering this country, consumers are buying it, and they have no knowledge that it comes from France, despite the serious anxieties to which those European Commission reports give rise.

The problems encountered by British pig farmers producing to higher standards than many competitors abroad, the dangers to consumers of eating poultry that has been produced using growth-promoting substances that are banned throughout the entire EU for health reasons, and the dangers of eating meat that may have come in from France and which may be contaminated—all those problems would be directly addressed by the measures in the Bill.

Not only is the Bill badly needed, it is needed now. The gravity of the crisis is due in part to the enormous increase in import penetration. British farmers are experiencing difficult conditions—much more difficult than they were before 1997. That is partly because of the level of sterling, a factor outside the Minister's control. As a consequence, competition from imports is probably more severe than it has been for a long time. With the huge growth in the international trade in food products, the need for honesty in labelling is greater than ever.

We have heard many times in recent months from the Prime Minister, from the Agriculture Minister and other Ministers of their support for the principle of honesty in labelling. Today they have an opportunity for that support to be put into practice by allowing the Bill a Second Reading.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury recognised in his opening speech, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset confirmed, that there may be deficiencies in the drafting of individual clauses, but the time to address those is in Standing Committee. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury would welcome the chance to explore in more detail some of the concerns that have been raised during the debate.

If revisions are needed to make the Bill entirely consistent with our EU obligations, my hon. Friend and I are ready to support them, as long as the thrust of the Bill is not destroyed. I hope that in dealing with the EU requirements, Ministers and the House will be robust in their defence of British interests. That is necessary at all times, and it would certainly be needed in relation to the Bill.

If the Government decide to talk the Bill out today or use any other mechanism to block its progress to the next stage by denying it a Second Reading, they will be sending a clear and rather chilling message to consumers and farmers throughout Britain. Every rural community will be listening eagerly to the Minister's remarks and to the outcome of the debate.

If Labour is not willing to offer support during the present crisis by allowing a Second Reading to a Bill that does not add a single penny to public spending and that embodies the principles that Ministers claim to support, Labour will be judged by its actions, not its words. It will rightly be judged harshly and condemned for denying the House a chance to examine in more detail a measure that is entirely constructive in its approach.

If the Bill does not get a Second Reading today, all those fine phrases from the Prime Minister and other Ministers will be exposed as utterly worthless. There is time for the Government to support the Bill, and I urge them to do so.

2.15 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin)

The debate has been interesting and worth while, and many valid points have been made. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on his good fortune in securing such a good position in the ballot and on raising an important issue.

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) pointed out that I nodded much during the speech of the hon. Member for Eddisbury. I do not apologise for doing that because I agreed with many points that he made. My initial reaction to the Bill was understanding, sympathy and support. However, when I examined the few clauses in the measure, I had severe reservations about it. In the short time available, I hope that I can explain the reasons for that to the House. Hon. Members from all parts of the House have asked questions about the Bill's feasibility.

As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) pointed out, the substance of the Bill is contained in clauses 2 and 3. The problems of compatibility with European law that several hon. Members pointed out unfortunately exist. As I pointed out in an earlier intervention, the previous Government helped to effect that European law. Clauses 2 and 3 contravene EU law and that means that the Bill contravenes it.

Consistency is important. The hon. Member for Eddisbury said that he was worried about any suggestion that the Bill contravened EU law and that it was not his intention, even if it was that of others, to "clobber"—I think that was the word he used—EU law through the Bill. However, clauses 2 and 3 would do exactly that. They would mean acting unilaterally on matters about which we agreed under previous legislation to act in the framework of the European single market. Despite the Euro-scepticism that reigns among Conservative Members, the Conservative party and certainly the Liberal Democrats have a strong commitment to the operation of the European single market, which is important for our industry. It is important for agriculture as well as other industries.

Various sectors of agriculture export to other EU countries and it is important to safeguard those exports and ensure to the best of our ability that the European market works fairly. I am the first to admit that many aspects of that European market do not work fairly. The Government are seeking to tackle those aspects.

Mr. Bermingham

Does the Minister agree that if we pass a law that is incompatible with treaty obligations, the European Court will strike it down?

Ms Quin

My hon. Friend is right. There is no doubt that the substance of the Bill could result in European legal action being pursued. It is important for us to be consistent and the Government have rightly said that we obey European laws to which we have agreed.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury rightly pointed out why we so strongly deplore the French attitude to our beef exports. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) urged us to be robust, so I should report to the House that I was at an annual international agricultural event in Paris yesterday to promote British meat products with members of the Meat and Livestock Commission and our own agricultural community. We sell lamb and sheepmeat to France in considerable quantities and it is therefore important to convey our support for those products. I also held a press conference that firmly criticised the completely unjust unilateral action taken by the French Government and repeated why British consumers have confidence in the high standards that we have introduced, to which Members on both sides of the House have referred.

Given the clear incompatibility of the substance of the Bill with European legislation, I was surprised that two Liberal Democrats spoke in support of it. I remind the House that we had to pay compensation when we introduced legislation that was struck down in the European Court of Justice—even legislation that appeared to be less at risk of being struck down than the Bill. It might have been useful for the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire—the former Attorney-General—to have listened to that point. The most striking example is provided by the Factortame judgment under which the Merchant Shipping Act 1988, which restricted the registration of fishing vessels and was designed to deny Spanish quota-hoppers access to United Kingdom fish quotas, was struck down in the European Court. Substantial compensation had to be paid.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk said that the Bill would not cost the Government anything. If it were implemented in anything like its current form, it could be extremely costly to the United Kingdom and could damage our reputation considerably. Although I agree that the principle behind what the hon. Member for Eddisbury is trying to achieve is dear to all our hearts—it has been the subject of a number of Government initiatives so far—it is simply impossible for us to give the Bill fair passage, knowing what its implications would be.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) hopes that the Government will use the Bill as a lever in our arguments with other European countries. Although I am happy to listen to his advice, it is unnecessary because we are already taking action in that respect. I do not want to take a party political approach because there is a lot of common ground between Members on both sides of the House, but I believe that we have been far more active on labelling issues in the EU framework than the previous Government. Indeed, some complaints about the state of EU legislation have arisen from directives into which they entered.

We are strongly committed to giving the consumer relevant information and there is no difference between us on the information that consumers want on labels. We are helping to create a system whereby consumers get more information now, and in the future we will be able to satisfy some of the hon. Gentleman's understandable aspirations.

The Government were taken to task by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin). He blamed us for not being proactive enough on the Bill. I was once fortunate enough to get a much lower position in the ballot than the hon. Member for Eddisbury, and I wanted to introduce a public safety information Bill. I immediately approached the Department and sought a meeting with the relevant Ministers. Unfortunately, they did not accept my sensible measure. The hon. Gentleman could have come to us. He received support from the National Farmers Union, so I contacted that organisation to explain where we agree with it on labelling initiatives and the reasons why the Bill is not acceptable.

Mr. Letwin


Ms Quin

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue, I shall come to the point that he specifically raised.

During the debate, many hon. Members have said that it will be possible to deal with some of these issues in Committee. Obviously, if the Bill proceeded into Committee we would have to tackle them. However, it would be tantamount to an abuse of parliamentary procedure to expect a Bill to go into Committee when its two substantive clauses are, in the Government's view and in the opinion of legal advisers, in contravention of Acts already on the statute book and of EU law. The two substantive clauses are incompatible with European law.

We believe that to achieve the goals that the hon. Member for Eddisbury rightly wants to achieve, it is far better for Ministers to pursue the initiatives that they are already taking, and to spend time building up support in the European Union for our objectives, rather than to spend a huge amount of time in Committee on a Bill, the substantive elements of which are not compatible with European law. I think that there has been widespread understanding of that position during the debate.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury also mentioned the importance of the devolution aspects of his proposal. I assure him and the House that Ministers in my Department have regular meetings with the corresponding Ministers and Secretaries in the devolved legislatures and organisations. We are keen to move together on issues to which single market considerations apply, and when we need to present a common position to the European Union to get the changes that he and the Government want to achieve.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the proposed Bill in the Scottish Parliament, which I understand is at an early stage. As he recognised, that Bill refers to labelling of meat, so it is a much narrower measure than his Bill. I think that he would agree that it makes sense to make our approaches compatible. That is not an argument against devolution, of which I am an enthusiastic supporter, but it is a reason to support the approach taken by my Ministry and the Government, which have worked in harmony with representatives of the devolved Administrations to try to ensure that we present a united front on European and single market issues.

During the debate, many references were understandably made—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 9 June.