HL Deb 14 March 1995 vol 562 cc721-5

2.50 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty's Government

Whether they consider that current and anticipated European legislation is helpful to the Scottish whisky industry.

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

My Lords, not in all cases. The Government give a high priority to avoiding unnecessary legislative burdens on British industry.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply and hope that it brings some comfort to the Scottish whisky industry which is, after all, our fifth most successful exporter and which is suffering from at least five pieces of unwanted and unnecessary Euro legislation at the moment. For instance, is my noble friend aware of the proposed directive on the circulation of animal feeds which requires the used barley or draff to be analysed in a laboratory at a cost of some £22 million per annum, thereby killing off the brewers' and distillers' grain trade which has a turnover of only £20 million per annum? Secondly, would my noble friend agree that some 53 per cent, of all Scottish milk cows are fed on draff and that cattle have been eating draff for hundreds of years without any noticeable ill effects?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend is right to emphasise the importance of the Scotch whisky industry for UK exports. With regard the proposed directive that he mentioned, the Government fully understand and support the concerns of the Scotch whisky industry. As the proposal stands, it could involve significant additional costs for the industry. In the Commission's expert group, UK officials have argued strongly against the over-prescriptive and potentially burdensome requirements of the proposal and have sought an exemption for moist feeds. The UK has also written formally to the Commission which has responded sympathetically. We hope that the exemption can be achieved in the Council working group.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is proposed—I do not know on whose authority—to enforce the freshwater fisheries directive of 1978, the provisions of which are entirely irrelevant to the interests of all concerned, including the environment? Will the Minister undertake to ensure that this extremely onerous regulation, which is agreed to be completely unnecessary, is not enforced?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Government are aware of the concerns raised by the noble Lord. The freshwater fisheries directive of 1978 sets quality standards in order to protect fish. Clearly, that is an important matter. The standards include temperature standards, but there are specific provisions under which, in certain circumstances, the Government may make derogations from the temperature limits. If a distiller wishes to obtain a derogation, he simply needs to approach his river purification authority and ask it to consider making an approach to the Government for a derogation.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend about the draft Council directive on the control of major accident hazards involving dangerous substances? Does my noble friend agree that the chemical composition of maturing whisky, how and where it is stored, and our own well enforced safety arrangements mean that the storage sites of maturing Scotch whisky simply cannot present a major accident hazard within the meaning of the draft directive? If that is so, does my noble friend know how it has come about that the Council has drafted the directive so as to catch those sites, and that it is now being backed by the Parliament, which wants to leave the draft directive as a blanket measure and expects the United Kingdom to seek a derogation? Where is the subsidiarity in all that, and where is the common sense?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important issue. The proposed directive to which she refers will include whisky along with other substances with a particular flashpoint. The Scotch Whisky Association has made a sound technical case for the exclusion of whisky from the scope of the proposed directive. The Government will argue for an exclusion for the storage of whisky.

Lord Mackie of Bensbie

My Lords, returning to the Question—

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords—

Noble Lords


Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, as the noble Lord comes from a whisky-making country, I shall allow him to go first.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, returning to the Question, the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is absolutely right that the byproduct is extremely important to the Scottish whisky industry and to the fanners who buy it. If all the efforts to prevent the application of such provisions do not succeed and some form of regulation is produced which is burdensome, will the Minister ensure that his department and his staff do not make matters worse as they did in the case of the regulations governing slaughterhouses, resulting in the closure of many?

Earl Howe

My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, he is leaping ahead of himself. The UK's aim is to preserve the status quo which requires analytical declarations only for the most commonly traded materials. That strikes a sensible balance between supplier and consumer interests. There is no evidence that farmers require the additional analytical information which is the subject of the proposed directive. In that sense I am entirely in sympathy with the noble Lord's comments.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, what happens if the European Commission takes not a blind bit of notice of Her Majesty's Government?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I would go so far as to say that it would be a nonsense if the provisions became law. The Government will take all measures to ensure that they do not.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, why is it that this House and another place continually have to deal with such absurdities? Is it not intolerable that an organisation should be trying to impose ridiculous restrictions on substances that we have used over hundreds—indeed, thousands—of years? When was a fire or explosion last caused by Scotch whisky? When was anybody killed because it is a corrosive substance? I understood that it was good for us. The Scots are always telling us that their whisky is good for us. Can the Minister justify the fact that the Scotch whisky industry has to pay at least £2 million for relabelling barrels so that they can be transported from place to place?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a number of points. I should like to address his last point, particularly as that is a substantive one. The fact is that whisky is a flammable liquid. It is transported in unmarked vehicles which display, I am told, only an orange placard to indicate that they carry dangerous goods. The Customs lock cannot readily be seen in an emergency. Hazard warning labels can therefore play an important part in identifying the nature of the hazard. There have been some unfortunate incidents and both the health and safety inspectorate and the Scottish fire services inspectorate support the need for labelling.

Lord Carter

My Lords, have the Government made any attempt to calculate the effect on jobs in the whisky industry if all five of the directives were accepted? Would the effect on jobs be greater or less than the loss of jobs resulting from the Government's increase in the duty on whisky which they had to apply because they lost the argument on VAT on fuel?

Earl Howe

My Lords, approximately 15,000 people are employed in the Scotch whisky industry. The Government have made no specific calculation with regard to the directives because we hope that at least two of them will not apply to the Scotch whisky industry. The excise duty rates are a matter for my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Government have listened carefully to what has been said by those in the industry and we will not seek measures which cause a switch away from spirits or an overall fall in consumption.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that whisky is the water of life to us Scots and that we do not take kindly to silly Sassenach stipulations from over the water?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I should be more than happy to discuss this matter later with my noble friend, preferably over some liquid refreshment emanating from north of the Border.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Welsh whisky is inflammable but safe? Will he give an assurance that no one will interfere with it?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I should also be delighted to discuss this at a suitable moment after these proceedings.

Lord Monson

My Lords, following the Minister's reply to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, does he agree that the transportation of whisky within the United Kingdom cannot possibly affect the people of Portugal, Greece, Belgium or France in any way? Therefore, is it not unmistakably a matter where the principle of subsidiarity should apply?

Earl Howe

My Lords, this is an issue which our own health and safety inspectorate supports, together with the Scottish fire services inspectorate. In that sense, it is a matter for us to resolve and we believe that it is an important measure.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, the Minister said that the regulation applies to Scotch whisky because it is inflammable. Does it also apply to brandy?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I have no doubt that it applies to brandy. I am advised that Scotch whisky has a similar flashpoint to various petroleum and ethanol products.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, will my noble friend go further than the answer he gave to my noble friend Lady Carnegy? She referred to what is normally known as the Seveso II directive. Will my noble friend prevail upon our partners in Europe not to go further with the Seveso II directive until the Greeks have done something to carry out Seveso I?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. The Commission is aware that several member states have not implemented the first directive and it has indicated that it is anxious to remedy that situation.

Lord Peston

My Lords, am I correct in saying that alcoholic beverages of this kind are now included because the flashpoint criteria have been raised? Is not the number now so high that it is extremely unlikely that an explosion will involve whisky? I am a supporter of the Union but I am bound to say that the situation sounds crazy and bureaucratic because one starts with an article at one end of the scale connected with genuine dangerous chemicals and someone is sitting in his office thinking, "What can I add?", and one has ended up with whisky. The situation sounds weird. Will the Minister clarify it?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Government and the Scotch whisky industry are in agreement that, with regard to the storage of whisky, there is a sound technical case for not including whisky in the proposed directive on hazards involving dangerous substances. On the other hand, with regard to the transport of whisky, it must be said that there have been some unfortunate incidents involving transporter lorries and so forth. That has led to the Health and Safety Executive coming down on the side of recommending hazard warnings.