HL Deb 21 January 2004 vol 657 cc1029-31

3.12 p.m.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their view of any proposals to abolish national trading marks and replace them by a European Union-wide trademark.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, no proposals have been made to abolish national trading marks and replace them by a European Union-wide trademark. The European Commission has produced for discussion with member states and other interests a working document setting out options in considering possible EU origin marking for EU products. The working document does not suggest abolition of national markings such as "Made in Britain", but raises the possibility of an additional label.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. He will be aware that the Financial Times has carried extracts from the working document that suggest that there are proposals for an EU-wide label of origin. Does the Minister agree that in a zone as disparate as an EU of 25 countries, a label, "Made in the EU", would be about as useful as a label saying, "Made in Asia"? Does he further agree that any such proposal might help manufacturers of Welsh whisky or dress designers in Barnsley hoping to be confused with designers in Milan, but would seriously undermine German, French and British manufacturers that rely on national characteristics to build brand and quality differentiation?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. The trouble with any EU marking would be that it was not sufficiently specific. The representations that we have received from industry and consumer organisations make exactly that point. One wants to know that one's Parma ham comes from Italy, not other parts of the EU.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, while we are on the subject of unnecessary EU interference in British industry, what progress has been made on defeating the proposed hallmarking directive?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am delighted to say that there was a lack of agreement in the working party on the hallmarking directive, so it did not go through to COREPER or the Council. It has run out of time under the Italian presidency and is unlikely to be taken up by either the Irish or the Netherlands during their presidencies, so we can assume that it is effectively shelved.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, as the Minister has said that national trademarks will continue to be granted and existing ones will continue to be effective, what steps will be taken to resolve any differences that may occur between the reports from the Community trademark office and the British trademark office if they disagree about any product or trademark?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the noble Baroness gets a bit ahead of the issue. There is only a discussion, not even a proposal. If it goes forward in any way—there appears to be little enthusiasm for it across Europe—that may become an issue, but it is not one at present.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that many consumers would like products, especially in supermarkets, to indicate as local an origin as possible—not just British or UK but within the region in which the supermarket is located—so that people can enter supermarkets in Northern Ireland and see that products are made in Northern Ireland and in the West Country that they are of West Country origin? That would give consumers maximum confidence in the products available.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, noble Lords will appreciate that the system of trademarks in this country is at present entirely voluntary. If there is demand, it is likely that manufacturers will respond to it by making that a point of advantage for their products.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the use of the words, "any proposals" in the Question carries concern with the symbolism of the issue to the point of giving the appearance of total indifference to the content?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am not sure that I understand the general thrust of that question. I can only repeat that there are no proposals, there is simply a discussion document. It clearly has some symbolism by suggesting that there is some interest in the matter, but we are consulting on the content and will respond in due course.

Lord Blackwell

My Lords, just for clarity, can the Minister confirm, on the basis of what he said, that British Government representatives will be instructed to oppose the proposal if it is advanced?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, as I made clear, it is not a proposal, it is simply a discussion document that sets out three possible ways forward. We have consulted; the consultation has ended; we are now analysing the responses; we are rather sceptical about the whole proposal.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, in view of what the Minister said, will he at least rule out a ridiculous EU compromise, which would be typical, that we should have both EU and national marking? That would be absurd.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, ruling out EU compromises before we have even reached them would be folly. As I said, there is no proposal to get rid of national trademarks, so, by definition, if any proposal were made it would be for an additional label. That would not be a compromise; that is the nature of what is in the discussion document.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, as the Minister remarked, the proposal was in a discussion document and was not a formal proposal. As I understand it, it concerned the textile industry, where there is much concern about the fact that the majority of textiles sold within the EU are now being produced outside the EU. Some within the textile industry thought that the proposal would be helpful. Does the Minister expect that, during the five months between now and the next European elections, there will be more stories from obscure discussion documents blown up into large stories about how dreadful the EU is?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the proposal—or discussion—arose from general comments by industry, MEPs and others. I do not think that it was restricted to the textile industry; it was a general proposal. No doubt other discussion documents will be discussed in similar terms in this House.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that, too often, discussion documents become proposals, then they become directives, and then they are agreed by qualified majority vote? In this instance, would it have to be decided by qualified majority vote? Under those circumstances, would the Government not be able to do anything about it?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, in EU processes, discussions tend to lead to proposals that are then voted on. In this case, there seems very little enthusiasm to continue with that process after the initial stage.