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House of Commons

Friday 2 November 2001

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that the first Bill on the Order Paper, the Patents Act 1977 (Amendment) Bill, has been withdrawn. We shall therefore proceed to the second Bill.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask both why this problem has arisen and two specific questions? First, why has the Bill been found to be defective only at this very late stage, whereas the defect might have been identified earlier? Secondly, why is it not possible to rescue this potentially useful Bill by amendment in Committee?

Mr. Speaker: I was concentrating on the hon. Gentleman's first point; could he repeat his second one?

Dr. Cable: Some hon. Members attending this debate were hoping that this useful Bill might be passed for further scrutiny and improvement by amendment in Committee. Why is it not possible to do that?

Mr. Speaker: It is entirely up to the hon. Member promoting a private Member's Bill, even when we have gathered in the Chamber to debate it, to decide whether

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he or she wishes to proceed with it. As I said, the Bill has been withdrawn. There can therefore be no other comment on the matter.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do you not agree that it is a gross discourtesy to hon. Members when a Bill is withdrawn at such a late stage? I certainly spent some time yesterday afternoon preparing a speech for this debate—[Hon. Members: "Ah."]—and I know that many other hon. Members have done the same. If notice of the Bill's withdrawal had been given earlier—yesterday morning, for instance—much of the time that has been spent by hon. Members could have been saved and diverted to other purposes. Did the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) give you a reason for withdrawing the Bill?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is asking me to express an opinion, but as he knows, I cannot do that. I am not entitled to an opinion so I cannot help him. However, I am sure that there will be an occasion when he can use his speech.

Ms Claire Ward (Watford): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Whilst not asking you to express an opinion, I wonder whether you think that it would have been appropriate for the hon. Member for Bridgwater to have an opportunity at least to express to hon. Members in the Chamber why he felt it was appropriate to withdraw the Bill.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Member for Bridgwater is guided by the same rules as guide all hon. Members: the rules of the House. He has exercised his right to withdraw the Bill and there is nothing more to be said about the matter.

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Food Labelling Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.37 am

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I shall have slightly more time for this debate than I had anticipated, but I am sure, seeing the calibre of people on the other side of the Chamber, that Labour Members will have no trouble in adapting their speeches on the first Bill, if they want to make them, to this debate.

For the past 10 years I have been faithfully applying for the ballot for private Members' Bills, and in each of those years I have failed. I have tried just about every imaginable method to win, including using various combinations of my telephone number and the dates of my wedding anniversary and birthday. At last, however, I have hit upon a way of winning, and I have no objection if other hon. Members copy it. I decided to use my house number. Next year I shall again use my house number, as I am convinced that it is a winning combination.

My Food Labelling Bill owes very much to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien)—whom I am very pleased to see on the Opposition Front Bench—as it contains a great deal of his Food Labelling Bill. The inclusion is intentional both because his was an excellent Bill and because I wanted to build consensus based on known legislation. My Bill makes some minor amendments to the earlier Bill, to make it somewhat Euro-friendly, but I shall deal with those later.

I am very grateful for the backing of hon. Members on both sides of the House. My Bill's supporters include the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell), my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry), the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson), my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) and my hon. Friends the Members for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson).

Of course, hon. Members put their names to the Bill before the summer, and it has been a very exciting summer politically. Many of those who agreed to put their names to the Bill are unable to be here today because of their new appointments. In fact, it seems that I have been remarkably good at picking out the rising young turks on the Tory Benches—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Was my hon. Friend referring to me?

Mr. Pickles: I was referring to the young and the young at heart. My right hon. Friend did not put his name to my Bill; nevertheless I feel graced by his presence today.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Does that not indicate, completely counterfactually, that the right hon. Gentleman has a heart?

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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): That is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Pickles: I am sure that we are all grateful that it is not likely to be put to the vote.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): He would have to be labelled.

Mr. Pickles: I am not sure where we would put the label.

Hon. Members should take heart, as some of the Bill's luck will probably reflect on them and when they rise to the dizzy heights of the Cabinet, perhaps they will owe it to their presence here today.

The Bill is a modest measure which attempts to build an all-party consensus. I hope that hon. Members will not be disappointed to hear that I do intend not to be confrontational towards the Government, but to move the issue on and to get a decision or a promise without delay. Given the time, it is quite possible that we will have the opportunity to thrash out some of the issues today. I hope that the measure will be considered in Committee so that it can receive line-by-line scrutiny that will result in a solution. Perhaps I am slightly undermining my case by saying that I do not mind whether it is found through this legislation, but it is really important to have honest labelling of food products.

My clear intention is the unambiguous, straightforward and, above all, honest labelling of food. Everyone agrees that there is a need for it—from the Prime Minister to past agriculture Ministers to the present Minister with responsibility for the food chain. Ministers have made speeches at National Farmers Union conferences and other gatherings saying that it is necessary because the United Kingdom has a higher standard of care of animals and we want to get on the side of our producers. Farmers, retailers and shoppers all want something better. This is an honest and straightforward attempt to achieve that.

The Bill attempts to bring form and substance to the intention of Parliament when we passed measures to protect the welfare of animals. It is also an attempt to help the hard-pressed farming industry. Hon. Members will be aware that the first diagnosed case of foot and mouth disease was discovered in my constituency of Brentwood and Ongar in February. The outbreak was restricted to the abattoir and some surrounding farms. I saw at first hand the devastating effect of that terrible disease, not just on the farmers and the land, but on the wider rural economy. I readily concede that the effect on Brentwood and Ongar was little more than a pinprick compared with the suffering of farmers in Cumbria and Northumberland; nevertheless it is still felt today.

Above all, the Bill attempts to empower consumers—to give them a ready avenue to make the choice that Parliament and the Government are so keen for them to exercise. I should stress that it is certainly not an attempt to restrict imports or ban methods of production that are perfectly legal throughout the EU. We took a conscious decision to apply different rules to animal husbandry in particular, and we did so for the very best of reasons. We wanted to reflect on how animals should be kept, to set clear standards in respect of how they should be reared and fed, and on movement. Of course, the methods that we used before the regulations were imposed and the law

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was changed are cheaper, and the methods that we have chosen for the United Kingdom are inevitably more expensive. Parliament laid down the standards and it is now up to us to ensure that the public have an opportunity to reflect those standards in their choice of purchase.

We did not take decisions in a vacuum or lead the public; we followed public opinion, which has been very clear on this for a number of years. According to a recent survey by the Food Standards Agency, nearly 90 per cent. of consumers are concerned about the way in which animals are reared. I can think of no better way of expressing this than quoting the response by the National Pig Association to the policy commission on the future of farming. It is dated October 2001 and says:

What that means in practice is that when someone goes into a supermarket, they are not able to exercise that choice.

Since the Bill was last presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury, the famous red tractor scheme has been introduced. Last week I went into my local Tesco, where I have been shopping for about 10 years, and it was festooned with—

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