HL Deb 12 May 1983 vol 442 cc607-13

5.45 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I beg to move that the Importation of Milk Bill be now read a second time. The Bill is a necessary consequence of a judgment of the European Court which found the United Kingdom's domestic regulations, which applied to ultraheat-treated milk, to be contrary to Community law. The judgment was delivered on 8th February of this year, and it is essential to take steps to comply with it as soon as possible if we are to avoid being taken back to the court under Article 171 of the Treaty of Rome.

Arrangements were therefore made to introduce this brief enabling Bill, and it was given its First Reading in another place on 28th April. It was expected to receive its Second Reading there today. These plans were, of course, overtaken by Monday's announcement, and the Government had to decide whether to abandon the Bill or to press ahead with it. The Government concluded that the delay which would have been created by abandoning the Bill would have increased the risk of further legal action which might have obliged us to admit imports without any checks at all. We have therefore sought Parliament's agreement to expedite the passage of the Bill with what is almost, but not total, unprecedented alacrity in endeavouring to secure the passage of all its stages, except the First Reading, today.

Inevitably, this means that there will not be the usual opportunity for detailed scrutiny in Committee, which I greatly regret. I know that there are certain bodies which have an interest in the subject which are understandably unhappy about this. On that particular issue, I would merely make two points. First, since the judgment the Ministry of Agriculture has been in very close touch with such bodies as the National Farmers' Union, the Milk Marketing Board and the Dairy Trade Federation, which all have an interest in the matter. These contacts will of course continue. Secondly, although the Bill does not provide specifically for consultations, I can assure your Lordships that there will of course be consultations. It will clearly be necessary to take account of the views of interested parties before any regulations are made; and there will be the usual full discussion.

The Bill allows agriculture Ministers to make regulations to govern the importation of milk and the use of milk once it has been imported. The guts of the Bill (if I may so put it) is in Clause 1. It is widely drafted, but its essential purpose is to allow Ministers to establish a comprehensive import régime which the court's judgment recognises we may apply. In particular, it provides that regulations may deal with ports of entry, with certification of imports and with the inspection and testing of imported milk. It also provides for the regulations to adjust our domestic legislation, which was found incompatible with Community law, in order to allow the sale of imported milk and to make various other provisions in order to reflect the fact that imports are now allowed.

I have deliberately concentrated on Clause 1 of the Bill because this contains all the essential provisions. Clause 2 indicates that the regulations in question are to be made by Statutory Instrument, or statutory rule in Northern Ireland, and they are subject to negative resolution. Clause 2 also defines the various terms which are used in the Bill, and it makes it clear that regulations may deal, not only with milk and cream but also with various milk-based products, such as flavoured milk drinks. Clause 3 simply gives the Short Title of the Bill and indicates that it extends to Northern Ireland.

I thought—and I hope that I have judged the House rightly—that your Lordships would not wish for a long debate about the problems of milk, which are well known. I have therefore deliberately kept my remarks briefer than normal courtesy would suggest in order to explain that this Bill is really an enabling Bill to keep the United Kingdom in line with the European Court's judgment.

Perhaps I could remind the House of the Statement which my right honourable friend made on 9th February and which I repeated in your Lordships' House. We said then that the Government would comply with the judgment and would provide for the import of ultra heat-treated milk from other member states, subject to its satisfying the same health and hygiene requirements on which, in the interest of public health, we insist for the production and processing of our own milk. This Bill is in full accord with that Statement, which received a wide measure of support, and I hope that your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Earl Ferrers).

5.51 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, with your leave—because my name does not appear on the list—I should like to make a small intervention. I will not detain your Lordships long; but as the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has said, under other circumstances there would have been considerable debate on this Bill because it affects an important industry in this country. It requires a mere 10 per cent. switch in trade from doorstep deliveries to supermarket deliveries of UHT milk to bring about a cessation of doorstep deliveries in many places. I am sure your Lordships are well aware that quite apart from the financial consequences to the dairies in this country, the social consequences of losing our doorstep deliveries are very great indeed because in many areas of the country and in many areas of population, notably the old, the doorstep delivery is their one daily link with the world outside.

Not only does the Labour Party wish that people should own their own homes; it also wishes them to have their milk delivered to the doorstep. I hope that whatever these regulations may be—and I am relieved to hear they will be discussed in full with the trade—whatever they may be I hope the Government will see that this can continue.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, we have had a lot of bandying across the Dispatch Box about the conventions of what was what, and I assume there is no convention about a Bill on UHT milk. I think that the Bill has been published in a hurry, as the noble Earl the Minister has said. The noble Earl said there had been discussion with the various bodies but not sufficient time to have their opinions, and that must be right. We have had a note from the National Farmers' Union but not from any of the other bodies concerned. I am glad to hear from the noble Earl that his contacts will continue in due course.

I think the Bill is necessary not only to protect consumers, who naturally would want to think that any milk from any other country was treated, packed and delivered in as good a way as we do it in this country, but it must also protect the producers who in this country are under very strict production and hygiene controls in our dairies. I have been a dairyman for many years and I know that it is quite an expensive business putting in the equipment today and engaging and paying the men to do the job properly, to produce clean milk from the farms. So this should apply to any milk coming from abroad.

In the other place when the Bill was going through yesterday, the Parliamentary Secretary emphasised that the quality of milk before treatment must be the same as ours. She emphasised this twice very sharply indeed. I think we have no regulations yet as to how this is to be done, and I wonder whether the noble Earl can enlighten us as to how one is to police production of milk from dairies from other countries if what has been emphasised in another place and what I have just said is to take place.

On page 2, paragraph (4)(a), there is the phrase, "as to the quality of the milk". That refers to the quality before it goes into the carton, before it is processed in any way. I would be interested to know how this can possibly be done. Quite frankly I think it is necessary to do that to protect producers in this country.

A few years ago I was in France with a party. I became bored with the holiday spirit so I asked to see a dairy in the Maritime Alps. They sent me to a big outfit which had about 120 to 150 cows taken up for summer milking. They were milked in a shed by hand. The dung from the cows was scraped out over the generations and I am not exaggerating when I say that it was flowing down the hill like the lava from Etna is flowing at the moment. That was all that happened to it. There were dogs knocking about lifting their legs at the milk cans. The water supply was non-existent so far as I could see. They boiled stream water in the dirtiest copper I have ever seen. The milk was made into cheese on the spot, and I would hate to think that that sort of milk was going to be processed. Of course you can use ultra heat treatment and make milk hygienic, but I would hate to consume it when produced under the conditions that I saw. I may add that for the next few nights I noticed that no one took cheese after dinner. I think that checking of this milk is most essential because after all ultra heat treatment hides a lot.

I appreciate the situation of not being able to discuss or amend the Bill, but if I wanted to put down an amendment on line 27, page 2, it would be to the effect that I do not not know why we need to put in the phrase, "consider necessary or expedient". Personally, I do not like the word "expedient". I looked it up in the Oxford Dictionary to discover the actual meaning, which is, "Politic rather than just". This might apply to the Government—"politic rather than just"—but to put in the word "expedient" after "consider it necessary" seems to be unnecessary.

So far as I can see, the main point from discussing this with processors in this country is that we can easily have competition with people producing UHT milk on the Continent if we can produce at the same price, and there is no reason why we should not do this. To process UHT milk and put it in a carton—it has to have a special carton—costs about 5½p a pint against 4p for ordinary pasteurised milk, also in a carton. That milk costs a lot to transport. I made inquiries as to whether we could not transport liquid milk to areas where children are starving, and it is an expensive business. It cannot be cheap to get it to this country, and we should remember that milk is 80 per cent. or 90 per cent. water. We should be able to compete and I should like to think we can because, as my noble friend behind me said, anything that would harm the doorstep delivery in this country would be terrible. If we can compete and we can deliver it along with pasteurised milk on the doorstep then we do not have a lot to fear. But whenever I discuss doorstep delivery with people, they are horrified that they might lose it. It has stood the test of time and I think we should do everything to see that doorstep deliveries continue. I think the figure that my noble friend quoted, even at 10 per cent. reduction, would put out of business a lot of milk rounds. This is something we should think carefully about.

My Lords, with the reservation that the Bill is a hurried one, and I hope we shall be able to debate the regulations because they will be very complicated indeed, whichever Government is there to do it, we are prepared in the meantime to let it go through.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I know that my name is not on the list of speakers but I hope I may be permitted to intervene briefly. I should like to say that while I welcome this Bill there are one or two questions I should like to ask in connection with it. The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, has put the point of view of the producers. I want to stress very much the standpoint of the consumers in the regulations in relation to the Bill.

If this milk is cheap it is something which a great many people would welcome. We are told continually that it is not nice. If it is not nice and if people think that, they will not buy it. But if they want to buy it and it is cheaper than the existing milk, then it is highly desirable that they should be able to do so.

I notice that the Bill says that satisfaction must be given with regard to quality. I should like to ask the Minister one question about quality. Obviously, we must have protection against milk which is not healthy; but there are qualities of milk, and a lower quality of milk which is cheaper is what some people want. When we talk of quality, are we simply saying that we will exclude milk which is not hygienic? That, of course, must be right. Are we saying that we are going to discriminate against milk which, although perfectly hygienic, is not of such good quality as some of the milk produced here but which nevertheless is fit for human consumption? Some people may very much prefer to have a larger quantity of such milk than a small quantity, or even none at all, of the better-quality milk? May we take it that this Bill, as it comes before us, fully conforms—I am sure it does but I should like to emphasise the point—with all the requirements of the EEC and indeed of GATT, and that there is no more creeping protectionism behind this Bill to add to all the creeping protectionism we are getting from so many quarters at the present time?

Having said that, like the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, we on these Benches will be very interested to see the regulations. We welcome the Bill guardedly and we want to be sure that the consumer interest is not overshadowed by the producer interest in discussion of this measure.

Lord Boothby

My Lords, as one who introduced the original national milk scheme, which was passed without a Division in another place at the height of the Battle of Britain. I would only ask the Minister whether he can give us an assurance that this Bill will not involve any serious interruption in the supply of cheap milk for the children of this country.

6.2 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to your Lordships for having given the Bill a speedy recognition. If I may answer the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, first, I would assure him that this Bill does not in any way affect the supply of school milk for children. Its sole purpose—and here I am answering the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear—is to protect the consumer from having milk of an inferiror quality. I take her point very readily that there are questions of quality of production and of quality of content. The regulations to be introduced will refer to the quality of production because what we have in our country at the moment, under which our milk has always been sold, are very strict regulations as to the manner in which the milk is produced, the premises on which they are produced and the conditions in which that milk is bottled or pasteurised.

Our wish is to see that any milk which comes into this country which the European Court's judgment says should be allowed is produced to the same standards of production and processing. The court's judgment recognises our right to do that, and the purpose of the Bill is to accede to the court's judgment in allowing to come in milk which will satisfy the consumer and to allow us, as a country, to protect the quality of the milk which our citizens will consume.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl. I should have apologised when I spoke earlier because I was not here when he made his opening speech. I am afraid I was caught up in the election campaign.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for what she has said. She need not worry at all. I am sure that her involvement in the election campaign, even if it might be a trifle premature, is perhaps even more important than her observations on the Bill, although they are important too.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, was entirely right to express concern about the doorstep delivery. For some extraordinary reason there have been one or two sparks flying across the Chamber this aftrernoon, but I am delighted to find that the Opposition and the Government are in total harmony over this matter. We want to see the doorstep delivery retained. My right honourable friend has gone out of his way, time and time again, since he has been Minister of Agriculture, to say that this is a vital part because it provides, among other things, a social service. It enables people to know what is going on, especially in connection with households with elderly folk. I do not think the noble Baroness need worry unduly because at the moment only about 1 per cent. of the milk is UHT milk, and it is only when the milk supply in the supermarkets gets to unprecedently large proportions that people may prefer to go to the supermarkets rather than have their milk delivered on the doorstep. In the end, it is up to the housewives to decide; and the value of the doorstep milk and its quality is. I would suggest, infinitely better than the UHT milk, which is of a different calibre altogether.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, asked how we would police the production of milk. I would tell him that at present consultations are going on in this country and in Europe on precisely that type of point. We want to be able to satisfy ourselves that the milk is produced in the right kinds of conditions, and I cannot believe that the conditions he described would be remotely acceptable to our consumers. Incidentally, Mr. Dalsager himself was so keen to find out about the doorstep delivery of milk that he accompanied a delivery man on one occasion in this country to find out how it is done.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, asked why the word "expedient" was in the Bill, as well as "necessary". He said he did not think it was necessary. Without going into undue semantics, I would suggest that something may be necessary and on another occasion it may be expedient or desirable but may not be necessary. It is for that reason that this modest word was put in; but I do not think it really affects the substance of the Bill

I am grateful to your Lordships for the welcome you have given to the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, said that he looked forward to debating the regulations. I am sure he does and I would not wish to dishearten him, but I would remind him that they are subject to negative resolution and he would be able to debate them if he wishes to pray against them.

On Question, Bill read a second time.

Then, Standing Order No. 43 having been suspended (pursuant to Resolution of 10th May):

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved, That the order of commitment be discharged.—(Earl Ferrers.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Bill read a third time, and passed.