HC Deb 07 March 2003 vol 400 cc1124-6

Order for Second Reading read.

2.20 pm
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

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

I am delighted to have the opportunity to present and seek support for the Bill. This is the third attempt to address—albeit in amended form—and, I suggest, meet, the somewhat ill-defined objections to clear, simple and, above all, honest food labelling in England and Wales that the Government have thrown in the path of similar Bills on previous occasions.

I am very grateful to all the Bill's sponsors for their support. They include my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), who introduced a similar Bill in the last Session; my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry); my hon. Friends the Members for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly), for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), for Poole (Mr. Syms), for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) and for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham); my hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin), who are here today; and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), who is also in her place today and whose constituency neighbours mine in North Shropshire.

Shona Mclsaac (Cleethorpes)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien

I do not have much time, so if the hon. Lady will forgive me I will not give way.

In the very truncated time that is left to me, I should like to find out whether the Government agree that the Bill should proceed to Committee, given that many of the arguments have been heard in the House already, not only in the 1999–2000 Session, but in the last Session. The Government's principal objection has been primarily that the Bill might possibly flout European Union law.

We must ensure that our farmers and consumers alike are served. We all know that British shoppers prefer to buy British if they can, but that fact does not underlie the Bill. What underlies the Bill is the fact that our farmers are blighted, and their stress and concern continue unabated. I have been privileged to represent the farmers and other constituents of Eddisbury for three and a half years, and the farming and rural communities have had a terrible time because the Government have chosen not to promote the rural economy. Indeed, they have taken specific actions that have damaged it.

I hope that the Government will now realise that the Bill provides a tremendous, wholly appropriate opportunity to tie together once again the interests of producers and consumers. That link used to exist until the Government decided to transfer the responsibility for food labelling to the Department of Health. Although I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), to his place, it is a shame, to say the very least, that the consumers and producers have not been regarded as part of the single value chain.

Important and appropriate safety issues in relation to public health have sometimes been given over-dominance, which has inappropriately and unfairly decried the tremendous achievements of British farmers and food producers, who apply the highest production standards to all forms of foodstuffs. I have therefore deliberately amended clause 3, which caused the Government such problems.

The Minister will have noted the radical change that has taken place since a similar Bill was debated in the House. I therefore hope that, in the short time that he will have to reply, he will ask his colleagues to support the Bill in its progress to Committee, where we can at least debate such matters in detail. Unquestionably, private Members' Bills are not always perfectly drafted, but that is why they are fine tuned in Committee.

We could ensure that the current wording of clause 3 in no way damages our relationship with Europe, or flouts or contravenes EU law or regulations. On the contrary, the Bill is intended not to discriminate against or restrain trade, but to ensure that no unfair, anti-competitive provisions apply to our farmers. Indeed, in the three years since I first raised this issue in the House, France and other EU member states have stolen a lead on us. They have got ahead of us on the basis that they do not have a problem with country-of-origin labelling or with applying their requirements for minimum standards of production and making sure that that is understood, if they believe that they can get away with it, on their packaging. We should not therefore feel that we must resist that, as the marketplace has become even less of a level playing field. The proposal is intended not to restrain trade—I am a passionate believer in free trade—but to promote it. At the moment, our farmers are subject to an illegitimate restraint on their chances to export not only to EU member states but to other countries.

More importantly, our farmers face competition from imports that, even if they are legal—of course, illegal imports should be far better policed by the Government through other provisions—have labelling that causes a problem. Even today, outrage was shared by Members across the House that, for example, a Union Jack can appear on Danish bacon simply because it was cured and spiced in this country, even though the pork was raised in Denmark. I have nothing against Danish bacon other than that Denmark has not yet implemented the harsh and costly regime on stalls and tethers that we have applied, for animal welfare reasons, in this country. Our pig farmers are much to be congratulated. I am very pleased that not only the National Farmers Union but the National Pig Association have given full backing to the Bill, as they have done in the past. They have also applauded the amendments made to the Bill and its drafting.

More importantly to Labour Members—who, I dare say, will have made the equation that consumers are more aligned to voters, on a crude political basis—consumers want the measure. The National Consumer Council and the Consumers Association both fully back the Bill. They cannot understand why there is such an objection from Government, other than that it may contravene EU law. Let us be clear: we should be able to apply public health and food safety standards for British consumers in this British Parliament. While the Bill is not in any sense intended to be Europe-bashing or Brussels-bashing, as has been claimed in the Government Whips' handout notes in the past, it is important to recognise that it is intended to promote both fair trade and free trade and, above all, to give us the right to look after the interests of our farmers and consumers and to stop the unfair, anti-competitive practices that are hurting our farmers unnecessarily by restraining free and fair trade.

I therefore urge the Minister to respond immediately after I finish my speech, as time is pressing. It is a shame that our discussion has been truncated, but that is the nature of Fridays. I hope that I have been able to focus precisely on the issue—as you can imagine, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have prepared chapter and verse on the detail of EU law. As I am sure that the Minister will have done his homework, he may have the opportunity, in the short time remaining, to accept that the Bill should go to Committee for the sake of British farmers and British consumers alike.

2.28 pm
Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

I am delighted, in the short time that remains to debate this important Bill, to follow the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien). I agree that it is a shame that, because of the time taken on a previous Bill, we have little time left on this occasion to debate it. I part company with him when he says that he is quite prepared, despite the shortness of time, not to have his Bill debated, especially as we debated the Bill last year, and we discovered a number of flaws in it. That in itself is an indication of why we need to continue that debate. If we do not have time to complete the debate today, I am sure that there will be future occasions on which the debate can take place.

My constituents are extremely concerned about the issue of food labelling. So far, however, I have had no letters from any of my constituents complaining about the existing regime. The issue is important to them and we must consider it. However, if a proposal is likely to lead to considerable administrative changes and inconvenience, we must make absolutely sure that we get the changes right. I do not—

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

Debate to be resumed on Friday 14 March.