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11.33 am

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): I am pleased to speak in the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) on his choice of Bill. I am sure that all hon. Members with an interest in agriculture and the rural economy are familiar with the issue of labelling.

Labelling is a constant theme at my regular meetings with farmers in my constituency, who are justifiably proud of their produce and want its source to be known far and wide. I shall use our particular experience in Cornwall to illustrate the wider themes. As hon. Members

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will know, Cornwall has had significant economic problems in recent times, but one of our strengths has been our identity, both as a community and as a place that people know and love. It has long been the wish of our farmers and our tourism industry to make the most of that strong and instantly recognisable identity and, of course, of the Cornish brand. That applies to agriculture, tourism and a host of exports.

With European support under the objective 5b programme, the Cornish King potato brand was successfully developed. We now see the emergence of Cornish Yarg cheese, which is, I am sure, to be found by hon. Members in supermarkets, specialist delis and, of course, in the Members' Dining Room. I hope that they choose to partake of it. I have a small Yarg factory in my constituency, which is a prime example of a small industry succeeding through the quality and reputation of the product.

Just this week, we discovered that unemployment in my constituency has fallen by nearly 50 per cent. since 1997. I am delighted to say that the area has had the fifth highest fall in unemployment in the whole country during the past year. I have absolutely no doubt that the achievement is partly due to local small businesses, such as the Yarg factory that I have described. It is a precedent for a brighter future.

Hon. Members know that the successful development of indigenous brands and marks of quality that can be promoted at home and abroad offers much to an economy such as that of Cornwall. The clear, reliable and wholly honest labelling that hon. Members have described is essential for that development. Failure to achieve that threatens to undermine confidence and the positive initiatives that I have described. Any sensible legislation to enable that labelling to develop, and to build on existing legislation, can only be a good thing.

I agree with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar that better labelling is supported by consumers and producers alike. People like to know where their food comes from and what is in it. Some people can take that to extremes. The Cornish pasty was mentioned earlier. I have heard what may be an urban, or rather a rural, myth that someone has written a university thesis on the composition of the Cornish pasty.

Mr. Drew: That is no surprise.

Ms Atherton: No, it would not surprise me if it were true. The composition of the pasty is a debate that goes on in Cornish pubs night after night.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): And in Devon.

Ms Atherton: Indeed.

Mr. Dismore: Perhaps my hon. Friend could give us her thesis on the proper ingredients for a Cornish pasty.

Ms Atherton: I fear that if I did so we would be here for a long time, but if Madam Deputy Speaker will permit me, I can say that a good pasty needs high-quality Cornish beef, Cornish potato, onion and high-quality pastry.

People like to buy local produce, if they can. We can see evidence of that trend in farmers markets and the sale of local produce in village shops. I have recently given

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my support to the introduction of milk in Cornish schools which I believe should be produced, and known to be produced, locally. A similar scheme in primary schools in my constituency gives each pupil a piece of fruit each day. I believe that the fruit should be locally produced, and that the young children should know that it may have been grown by their own parents. Not only does good labelling give consumers greater protection, but we see the relevance of the issue to the rural economy.

Hon. Members have made it clear that they passionately support the Bill. There is a consensus on the Floor of the House that we need to take action on food labelling, and a willingness to do so. I hope that the Bill goes into Committee for further discussion. We have heard suggestions for amendments, and the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar has generously offered to consider improvements.

I am sure that hon. Members may have noticed that I have not been very successful at dieting. That is in part my own fault, but it is partly the fault of the food industry and its labelling. I have discovered that there are more calories in most fat-free and diet products than in normal products on the supermarket shelves. That, I think, is why I have not been successful with different diets over the years. I would like the Committee to look into the scandal of the labelling on slimming products in this country.

I am pleased that our debate has focused in part on Cornish clotted cream. We have done our bit for the Cornish brand this morning. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar once more on his Bill and thank him for his interest in a matter that is of great importance to the farmers and consumers of my Falmouth and Camborne constituency.

11.40 am

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. When I think of meetings that I have had with south Bedfordshire farmers last year and this, and when I think back to a farmer's wife who came to one of my mobile surgeries in the village of Heath and Reach in my constituency last year, I must say despair would not be too strong a word to express their feelings about their industry. When I raised with them the issues of food labelling, making sure that British farmers did not suffer prejudice as a result of the current situation, the action that we can take, and animal welfare, I received a warm response. They expressed a wish that the House should do something about those important issues.

As Members on both sides of the House have said, the issue is clearly important to farmers; throughout the country, farmers will pay attention to our debate and, indeed, the progress of the Bill. As has been made clear, the measure does not just have the support of farmers and producers; it is supported wholeheartedly by consumers. As Members, we must represent 95,000 or so consumers who are keen to have information to enable them to shop intelligently and patriotically; they want to be able to make informed decisions about the food that they choose to buy.

Because the issue is important, I hope that Ministers will take account of the need for speedy legislation. This morning, it has been said that perhaps the objectives could be achieved via the European route, but I very much hope that the Bill will go into Committee and proceed speedily

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through the House. As has been said, speed is of the essence, whether we are talking about people who suffer from nut allergy, the state of the farming industry, or indeed the wish of consumers to have proper information. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) said, it is a scandal that chickens from Thailand can come into this country containing hormones that are not legal here and, to boot, have a Union Jack stamped on the packaging if the final processing takes place in this country. That is a disgrace and should not be tolerated; legislation is urgently needed to do something about it.

Similarly, with animal welfare, the British public rightly expect our farmers to adhere to the highest possible standards. I am proud that the House has seen fit to make sure that we have higher standards of animal welfare than many other countries. For example, the stall and tether method permitted in other countries is not allowed here. Again, that imposes an extra cost and, I submit, adds extra value to the quality of British produce. If British farmers have to endure that extra cost, they should receive the benefit of its being made clear on the labelling; when the produce of other countries does not come up to those exacting standards, that should also be made clear.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): The hon. Gentleman talked about the cost of cheaper imports and food labelling, a principle that I support. However, do people buy food because of the label or because of the cost of the product? Will the Bill provide all the answers that the hon. Gentleman seems to suggest it would? I suspect that if stall and tether methods are still used abroad, but the meat is cheaper, the majority of people will buy the cheaper product.

Andrew Selous: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who raises the important issue of the cost of our food. We should all be conscious of the fact that people on low incomes have to watch their weekly shopping bill very closely indeed. The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point; it may be that some people simply cannot afford to indulge their consciences by buying the food made to high standards of animal welfare that they would like. However, the point still stands; information should be put in the public domain and included on the product so that people can make a choice. We would all understand if very poor people were unable to buy the more expensive product, but many people want to make sure that they shop with compassion and buy food that has been produced to the highest possible standards.

In time, I hope that we can give a fair wind to local labelling, as has been discussed this morning. Totternhoe in my constituency gets a considerable number of eggs into the local shops, which are clearly labelled as coming from that village; indeed, the farm where those chickens live is well known, and I have been past it many times. Anything that we can do to restore the link between the consumer and the place of origin is very welcome.

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