HL Deb 17 July 2000 vol 615 cc656-8

8 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd July be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order extends the system of strict liability to include primary agricultural products. It is made under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 and is a product liability modification order. It extends the system of strict liability to include primary agricultural products and game—that is, food in its raw state. Food that has undergone some form of processing is already included.

The change means that under the strict liability system, as for other products, anyone injured by food sold in its raw state will now be able to sue the producer for damages without having to prove the producer negligent. However, the injured party must be able to prove that the product was defective and that the defect caused the injury. Producers in this context include farmers, food and vegetable growers and fisheries. The provision also includes importers of these products from non-EU countries. Other suppliers, such as wholesalers and retailers, would be liable only if they failed to identify the producer or their own supplier to an injured person.

The purpose of the order is to implement Directive 1999/34/EC, which amends the 1985 Product Liability Directive. This will be achieved by amending Part I of the Consumer Protection Act 1987, which transposes the 1985 directive in UK law. This order is made under Section 8 of the 1987 Act which provides for modification of the Act following any modification of the 1985 directive. The order will apply to England and Wales only. Under devolution, separate arrangements will be made in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. The new measure will come into force on 4th December 2000 and, therefore, the change will apply only to primary agricultural products put on the market on or after that date.

I believe that this is a further small but important step towards improving consumer protection in the all-important area of food safety. An added benefit of the amendment is that it sweeps away any confusion over which food products are covered by strict liability, as all food is now covered.

The original 1985 Product Liability Directive allowed member states to decide whether or not to include food sold in its raw state. At the time of the directive, concern was expressed that food in its raw state might be more prone to have hidden defects caused by environmental factors beyond the control of the producer. Moreover, due to bulk mixing of food products in their raw state—for example, in cereals—it was felt that there might be a particular problem in tracing the source of the product fault. In practice, these difficulties could happen to other products that are already covered by the original directive, so this brings into question why producers of food in its raw state should be given special treatment.

Experience of the directive has shown that few problems have arisen in this area. Four countries—namely, Finland, Sweden, Luxembourg and Greece—chose to include food in its raw state at the time of implementing the original directive and have reported no apparent problems. Further, the concerns that the directive would lead to excessively high insurance costs have proved to be unfounded. The only significant costs that arise are those of insurance. During our consultation exercise, we discovered that at least 75 per cent of farmers and growers—the vast majority—already have product liability insurance, as do most fish and shellfish producers. Therefore, I am convinced that this is a small price to pay for helping to restore further public confidence in food safety, which, in turn, will be to the ultimate benefit of producers as well as consumers. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 3rd July be approved [25th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I shall be a good deal briefer in my remarks on this order. However, I shall, first, reiterate my point about the Explanatory Note. It is a bit more of an explanation in this case, but that is only because of the brevity of the order. Secondly, can the Minister confirm that there has been no gold plating in respect of this order? Thirdly, as I read the Explanatory Note, I see that "game" is included. Therefore, this coming winter, after the 4th December, if I buy a pheasant and break one of my teeth on a bit of shot remaining in it, will I be able to sue the poultryman who sold it to me?

Lord Razzall

My Lords, as noble Lords may anticipate, I shall inevitably take a slightly different approach to that adopted by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. Clearly the Minister will share my view that consumer protection is a natural field of authority for the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission. While the Minister is answering the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, as to whether this order gold plates the directive, and bearing in mind the importance of this issue for consumers, could he confirm that he is satisfied that the order fully implements Directive 1999/34/EC?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by answering the easy questions. There is no gold plating. The order strictly reflects the requirements of the directive. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, acknowledged, the order is so short that it would be rather difficult to employ any gold plating.

On the issue of shot in game, I should remind the noble Lord that it has always been reasonable to expect that shot game will contain fragments of shot. Therefore, it is unlikely that such products would be deemed to be defective on that account. In any case, when one is buying from butchers—I buy from a registered game dealer in my suburb of London—it is always declared that there is a risk that game may include lead shot. That would remove, or discharge, any difficulty as regards a defect.

I said at the beginning of my introduction that nothing before 4th December, the implementation date, would be included under these provisions. However, I should like to reconsider the position because I believe the situation to be slightly more complicated. I know that I was not asked about it, but I should like to think about it and write to both noble Lords on that point. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.