HL Deb 16 February 1993 vol 542 cc983-5

Lord Cornwallis asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why they allow the import of food products of a standard lower than that which it is legal to market if produced in this country.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, all food marketed in the UK, whether it is imported or home produced, must meet the food safety requirements set out in UK food law. Much of that food law has been harmonised at European Community level and thus common standards operate in all member states. Where food law has not been harmonised member states must accept into circulation food which has been legally produced and marketed in another member state unless public health or animal health reasons can be shown for any refusal.

Lord Cornwallis

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that regulations imposed by this Government and not—and, I repeat, not—by the Commission as is popularly supposed, and with which none of our competitors have to comply, are causing serious rural unemployment and the closure of innumerable small, effective and profitable businesses? Is the noble Earl further aware that that is inhibiting the food producing industry in this country from participating in sensible import saving?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I take issue with the noble Lord's statement. The single market has effectively swept away a whole raft of regulations dealing with exports. Where there is new regulation it is chiefly to protect the UK's high animal and plant health status. There is no reason whatever to believe that any businesses will have to close down because of regulations related to the single market.

Lord Carter

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a need to develop a system of certification or accreditation whereby the results which are submitted from one country to another are accepted as being true statements?

Earl Howe

Yes, my Lords. That is a matter which the Commission is currently addressing, at our instigation.

Lord Renton

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the standards required under the CAP are for the most part more stringent or less stringent than our own?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as I said in my original Answer, much of our food law has been harmonised at European Community level and therefore common standards operate. However, there are various areas where those common standards do not apply. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, I contend that our regulations are no more stringent than those which operate in other member states.

The Viscount of Oxfuird

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that many of the instances of serious concern are the result of inaccurate information purveyed by both officials and the press and do not reflect what is written in the appropriate statutory instrument?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very important point. All government departments have to be alert to that concern. The distinction between what is a legal requirement and what is considered to be best practice is often overlooked. It is open to traders, through the conditions which they agree in contracts, to demand conditions which are more stringent than those which the law requires. That is the policy of a number of supermarket groups, for example. It is a commercial matter. Official inspection and enforcement should only seek what the law requires.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is it not the case that, as the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, said, a large number of businesses in this country have had to close as a result of the regulations? Will the noble Earl confirm that fact and tell the House the reason for the closure of those businesses?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as I have already said, I do not accept that proposition. If particular instances are known to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, I should be glad to know of them. However, I believe that all the stories on that front so far are very much in the realm of the anecdotal.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are cases of the kind he wished to know about. I can tell him of one in my own area concerning a small business involved in bacon curing and manufacturing. Conditions relating to a slaughterhouse, which has been improved up to our previous standard, are such that it is having to contract from a business employing 30 people to a retail business employing about 10 people. Is the noble Earl aware that his colleagues in the Scottish Office are doing their best for that particular business but are hampered by the regulations?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I should be happy to look into the specific case which the noble Lord cited. I am not personally aware of it. I assume that there are underlying reasons which have led to that decision to contract which do not bear directly on the regulations.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that if anecdotal evidence means people giving their views on the basis of what they personally have seen or experienced then there is a terrific amount of anecdotal evidence to show that the officials who are supposed to apply the regulations sometimes do not do so with the necessary good sense and impartiality?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point. I accept that there is inconsistency of enforcement of regulations around the country by various local authorities. That is a concern to which we have to be alive, and it is one which was raised by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in his deregulation seminar recently. However, I also believe that many of the press reports which we read about businesses which have had to close down due to the burden of regulations are either unsubstantiated or inaccurate.

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