§ 3.23 p.m.
§ Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether they will ascertain the views of the French Government as to the reasonableness of European Community regulations governing farmhouse cheeses, and whether it is their intention strictly to enforce them or seek their amendment.
My Lords, derogations from the EC milk hygiene directive for traditional dairy products, including farmhouse cheeses, are currently under discussion in Brussels. We will seek to establish the views of the French authorities in the course of those discussions. In the meantime, makers of traditional dairy products may follow their present practices.
§ Lord Peyton of Yeovil
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, which was very welcome. Will he consider the plight of Mr. Errington, a Lanarkshire farmer who has had his product confiscated and condemned and who has been put to huge expense in defending his livelihood—and all that because of a supposition that bacteria which are probably present in most, if not all, farmhouse cheeses might some day, although they have not yet, cause someone a problem? Does my noble friend agree that the action of the environmental health authority amounts to overzealous bullying?
My Lords, I do not wish to comment on this ongoing case. The regulations under which Mr. Errington has been brought to book, or taken to task, have been in existence for a long time. They are the old environmental health regulations. Current instructions to environmental health officers emphasise the need to act at all times making common sense a priority, taking 747 action only as is necessary to safeguard public health and not paying undue regard to the minutiae of the regulations.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, does the Minister agree with the statement of the British cheese producer quoted in the Guardian in April who said:I have just returned from Normandy and the range of cheeses was fantastic. I wager they have never been analysed in their lives—heaven help the French cheese industry if the Clydeside Environmental Health Department were ever let loose!"?
My Lords, I doubt that the Clydeside Environmental Health Department would ever be inflicted on the French since they are unlikely to have a Labour Government. Of course French cheeses are tested; the French indulge in an extensive range of testing for listeria. It is a matter of great concern to them and their cheese producers. I assure the noble Lord that the French are taking the listeria problem every bit as seriously as we are.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords, would it not be a good idea if the Government were to consult the French Government and take their advice on setting up an administrative court for Europe whereby such regulations could be challenged? If the French model were followed, the court would be allowed to look at whether the regulations were properly advised on and also at their merits. In France' if the court believes a regulation to be unreasonable it can quash it. Would it not be sensible to have a similar court available for Europe?
§ Lord Peston
My Lords, will the Minister confirm that this matter is not to do with the European Community but with our own regulations? Secondly, will he be good enough to ask his noble friend Lord Peyton whether Mr. Errington could get in touch with me in my role as chairman of your Lordships' Refreshment Department because ever since I heard of the case I have been keen that some of the cheese should be available to your Lordships? I do not believe that our lives would be placed at risk and it would be a good supportive gesture if people of our age showed how good the cheese is and how safe it is to eat.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, in order to put the matter into some kind of proportion, will the Minister give the annual average mortality and morbidity rates from listeria in cheese during the past five years?
My Lords, I do not have the exact figures. They are not high but they are a great deal higher in France.
§ Lord Ewing of Kirkford
My Lords, for the sake of the accuracy of the record, may I be permitted to advise the Minister that in Clydeside we build ships—and we can do with more orders from the Government? The cheese is made in Clydesdale and not in Clydeside.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the sheriff at the ruinous hearing through which the Clydesdale hygiene police are dragging the hapless Mr. Errington said only last Friday that he thought they were guilty of harassment in the way in which they are conducting the procedure? Does my noble friend accept that there is some doubt as to his assurance whether Mr. Errington's problems come from the United Kingdom requirements as opposed to the latest EC directive on the subject which deals specifically with the matter of listeria? Could he finally comment on the assurance given to your Lordships' House on 23rd February this year by my noble friend Lord Howe, who said:The Government are confident that British cheesemakers, irrespective of size, will not be adversely affected by the new rules"?—[Official Report, 23/2/95; col. 1247.]How can that be so?
My Lords, to deal with the last matter first, it will be so because we shall ensure that it will be so. The French are just as concerned that their French cheesemakers should be looked after as are the Dutch. A sensible conclusion will be reached to the negotiations currently under way in Brussels.
As regards the earlier matter, I can confirm that the new EC regulations do not currently apply to any of the specialist cheesemakers in the UK. We have a derogation for them until the current negotiations in Brussels are concluded.