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2.6 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): One of the unfortunate consequences of being the Minister responding to a debate on a private

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Member's Bill on a Friday is that, because of the nature of the debate and the commitments of right hon. and hon. Members, most Members have gone by the time one gets to speak. That is unfortunate on this occasion because we have heard 12 good speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House: my hon. Friends the Members for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton), for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), and the hon. Members for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin), for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) and, of course, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), the promoter of the Bill. He spoke very well and I will say a little more about his remarks in a moment.

As we all know, this is the second time round for the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), who spoke for the Opposition, so I assume that he needed less time to prepare for the debate than the rest of us, particularly myself. When the hon. Gentleman introduced his Bill, he spoke for an hour and 10 minutes, but today he managed to condense his remarks into a pithy 37 minutes. That was quite an achievement because, naturally, he and many other hon. Members feel very strongly about the subject.

I was struck by the high quality of the contributions. There is obviously a great deal of expertise on the subject among hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, and that knowledge was on display. I was struck also by a fact that will determine my subsequent remarks, which is that it would be wrong to characterise the concerns about the Bill, particularly those expressed by Labour Members, as representing a lack of concern about animal welfare or consumer safety and choice.

My hon. Friends have sought to emphasise the point that any disagreement is about means, not objectives. My concern about the Bill is not about its content, on which there is broad general agreement. We want to improve consumer choice, and I shall set out some of my arguments about that in a moment. However, we must try to achieve that aim within a framework that is compatible with our treaty obligations and the agreements that we have entered into with European Union member states. Most of the legislation that governs food safety, and food labelling in particular, was introduced by the Conservative party. In a nutshell, my concern about the hon. Gentleman's Bill—on which I shall expand, as he would expect me to—is that his proposal for dealing with genuine consumer concerns would take the United Kingdom outwith the framework of European obligations and legal requirements into which we have freely entered. Generally, that is a bad way to make policy.

Mr. Pickles: The Minister ducked a question of mine earlier, but I shall put that to one side. He will recall that I said that I did not mind how the Bill's objectives were achieved. I am not suggesting that we break our treaty obligations. The Minister may surprise me and conclude his speech before 2.30 pm; the Bill will go into Committee and he can put his valuable expertise to good use. Alternatively, he can use his expertise to pursue the Bill's objectives via another route. I do not mind which route is taken; I just want the matter to be addressed.

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. My preferred way, and certainly the Government's preferred

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way, of making progress on these issues is to do so within the framework of European law, as we are required to do. I shall deal later with the hon. Gentleman's challenge to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda about an hour ago, on the precise legal framework in which that debate needs to take place. However, his intervention is helpful and shows a generosity of spirit about the eventual fate of his Bill, which may not reach Committee. If he makes further interventions, it is unlikely to help his cause; he will be disappointed to learn that I am more than happy to give way if he wishes to make such observations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North told us about his encounter with a clam in New York and its unfortunate consequences for his stomach; I do not want to say anything more about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud made an effective and well informed speech. I am glad to see that he is in Chamber; he speaks out consistently and effectively in the House on his constituents' behalf. The hon. Member for Tatton demonstrated his charming and urbane nature. If the new shadow Leader of the House has his way in relation to Back-Bench Conservative Members, particularly new Members, he will not have done himself any harm at all.

In an otherwise good speech, the hon. Member for Leominster came close to spoiling what the hon. Members for Brentwood and Ongar and for Eddisbury described as a consensual attitude by questioning the values and assumptions of those of us who have reservations about the Bill. It is not because we have less enthusiasm or commitment to securing the principles of animal welfare and so on to which the hon. Member for Leominster alluded that we air those reservations. It is usually a bad idea for Members to claim a monopoly on concern or compassion in these issues; unwittingly, I suspect, the hon. Gentleman overstepped the line. However, I was glad to hear what he had for breakfast; I, too, am a Weetabix fan. From his remarks, and the frost with which he delivered them, he must have had three; I tend to stick to one.

Mr. O'Brien: That might explain why he is not in his seat.

Mr. Hutton: He is not in the Chamber now; perhaps it has something to do with the clams that my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North talked about.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne spoke effectively on behalf of her constituents, as did the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes referred to her nether regions, which made me slightly anxious. However, she meant the nether regions of her fridge, which is an important clarification. Thanks to her, I know a great deal more about low-fat mayonnaise than I did at the start of our debate. Perhaps she will let me have some of her recipes at the end of our proceedings.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge is not here now and was not here for most of our debate. It is appropriate that he made the shortest speech today—three minutes—as he was in the Chamber for the shortest period.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda spoke very well, and was the first Member to express concern about the Bill's legal basis. I thought that he struck the right balance between wanting to see improvements on the

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issue, as do we all, and finding the right legal vehicle to realise that ambition. For reasons that I shall explain in a moment, I tell the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar that his Bill is not the right legal vehicle to reach that goal.

I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda for allowing the House to learn a little more about Mr. Creamy, whoever he is. I have not had any Mr. Creamy products, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will let me have some eventually.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon—as always the voice of common sense in our Friday debates—made one of his shortest ever Friday speeches, although it was not short on quality. He was certainly right to take us outside the narrow confines of Europe in our discussion of the Bill's legal basis. He also quite properly raised issues on the general agreement on tariffs and trade and the world trade rules. When he mentioned those issues, I frantically searched through my speaking notes to see whether there was some mention of them there. Sadly there was not. However, I am quite sure that, as a distinguished lawyer, my hon. Friend was probably right in what he said about them.

I should like now to deal with the Bill itself and the Government's concerns about it. I very warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar not only on his success in the ballot—I thank him for sharing his tips on how to succeed in the ballot—but on the very thoughtful and dextrous way in which he presented his arguments. He has introduced his Bill very effectively indeed.

The Bill certainly raises important issues of consumer choice and public information about the food that we choose to eat. Those are important matters to which all hon. Members rightly attach priority and concern on behalf of their constituents, as do the Government. We are all consumers and we expect clear, honest and accurate food labels so that we can make properly informed choices when we go shopping. The Government are committed to improving the accuracy and content of food labels so that they better meet consumers' needs. Consequently, we are not content with the current arrangements for food labelling, and we have submitted detailed proposals to the European Commission, to which I shall return shortly.

The Government know, because we have asked for consumers' views and conducted consumer research, that consumers are concerned about origin labelling, which is largely the Bill's subject matter. Consumers do not trust some of the declarations that they see, and too often they cannot find origin information when they want it. That has certainly been my own experience.

The Government therefore share the objectives that have prompted the Bill. My concern is not about the Bill's content or objectives but about its compatibility with the current legislation regulating food labelling requirements, and therefore about the very credibility, enforceability and reliability of the proposals. If passed, the Bill would conflict entirely and be inconsistent with European law. Without any doubt at all, the Bill would be successfully challenged in the courts both by companies and by member states of the European Union and leave the United Kingdom Government exposed to extensive claims for compensation. It would be a pointless act of law making that could not succeed in realising its noble ambitions.

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I should therefore like to do two things in my remarks: spell out in a little more detail why we have arrived at our view on the legal deficiencies that fatally scar the Bill; and set out the wider context in which we can take forward, and I believe will be taking forward, some of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar.

Parliament has rightly decided that responsibility for developing advice on food labelling should fall to the Food Standards Agency. In a moment, I shall describe the agency's strategy on origin labelling and its work on other labelling issues and what the Government are doing both within and beyond Europe to improve the effectiveness of food labelling arrangements.

European Union and United Kingdom legislation already seek to provide general protection for consumers from false and misleading labels. The protection takes the form of a general requirement that the label must not mislead a purchaser on the characteristics of a food, such as its nature, identity, properties, composition, quantity, durability, origin or provenance, or method of manufacture or production. The protection applies also to the presentation of food, in particular its shape, appearance and packaging and the setting in which it is displayed.

Additionally, there are extensive and detailed food labelling rules which are harmonised currently at European level. The current rules are in directive 2000/13/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council, consolidating the earlier food labelling directive 79/112/EEC. The clear objective of that legislation is to tackle differences between regimes in different member states to facilitate the necessary free circulation of products.

Those EU rules specify the minimum amount of information required on food labels and prohibit misleading claims. EU food labelling rules already require food to have a name, carry an indication of its weight, a list of ingredients and so on. Particulars of the place of origin or provenance of a food must be given where failure to do so might mislead a purchaser to a material degree as to its true origin or provenance. These requirements are directly reflected in our own legislation, principally the Food Labelling Regulations 1996, as amended, which were introduced by the previous Conservative Administration.

In addition to this horizontal legislation, there are specific EU rules on origin labelling for a number of commodities, including most fruit and vegetables. Of course, from next January there will be detailed origin information on beef.

The food labelling directive severely restricts the scope of all member states for taking action to extend the rules already agreed, which the Bill would clearly do. It is not open to member states to take further action except in so far as it is authorised by the directive or other sector-specific EU legislation.

There was a quite controversial debate about which provisions of the treaty of Rome were relevant. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda rightly identified, articles 226 and 227 are about enforcement procedures and become relevant where there is a breach of European

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law. I believe that the Bill would exceed the labelling directive. It would also breach article 10 of the treaty of Rome—the duty to ensure fulfilment of Community requirements—and article 28 on quantitative restrictions on imports. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar might be aware, although he did not refer to it in his speech—I should make it plain that I have only just become aware of this—that in 1985 the UK lost an origin labelling case under article 28. In a moment, I shall say a few words about the so-called Italian pasta case which is directly relevant to the legality of his proposals.

We know from the jurisprudence from the European Court that labelling as proposed in the Bill is equivalent to a quantitative restriction on trade—[Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar does not like that, but it is the current legal advice that the Government have. On the French beef point, the Advocate General's opinion is that France is acting in contravention of EU law when banning imports of British beef. I know that it is not to the hon. Gentleman's liking, but the legal framework—

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