Cosmetic Products

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Miss Johnson: My hon. Friend has a nice argument. However, I am sure that WTO lawyers would spend hours and, indeed, years examining it.

Dr. Ladyman: Does it justify steel tariffs?

Miss Johnson: We do not want to go down the line of steel tariffs. The Government's position on that is very clear.

We want to make progress. The idea that the product is different is open to great argument because, at the end of the day, it could be the same finished product with the same ingredients. My hon. Friend will accept that the way in which his argument may be developed could result in disagreements about whether the outcome was different or the same.

Richard Younger-Ross: Will the Minister develop the argument of the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) about the impact of accepting the sixth amendment rather than moving forward with the seventh? She said that non-animal tests would not take place, but she also said that two are in place, one is nearly in place and five are in handI make that eight out of 14, which is the majority. If the sixth amendment were adopted, what would stop the further development of those? How long would we have before there was a challenge to the WTO, and for how long would the marketing ban be in place?

Miss Johnson: First, there is not EU support for the sixth amendment. That basic point must be made. We would not gain support for it across the EU whatever we argued. On the tests, I would not want the hon. Gentleman to leave with the impression that everything is fully developed. Some tests are being validated, a couple have been validated, and some are still to be done. Work on those will take time; we do not know long, but we will encourage speed from those involved. We cannot be sure about the time. It is not the case that the tests are a semi-done deal. Work still needs to be done in key areas, and we want to make sure that it happens as quickly as is practicable.

On the likely effect of entering into a legal dispute, I can only reiterate that we would be in an uncomfortable position in which no progress was made on non-animal tests. The dispute would also be very uncomfortable. We do not want to be involved in trade disputes unless we are forced to. We cannot predict, but we think that the challenge could take as long as two or three years. That would lead to

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uncertainty, and would be unproductive compared to the progress that we could make in the meantime.

Mr. Wright: Will the Minister explain whether it would be illegal, under the seventh amendment, to insist on labelling all cosmetic products under the banner ''This product is free of animal testing''?

Miss Johnson: No it would not.

Mr. Waterson: On a procedural issue, does the Minister accept that, in retrospect, it was a shame that the Government were in such a rush to lift the scrutiny reserve? Not only have we not had the Second Reading in Europe, we have not even fixed a date for it. Reserve was lifted in the teeth of the European Scrutiny Committee. What assurances can she give us about how the Department of Trade and Industry will approach similar situations in the future?

Miss Johnson: We debated that at considerable length earlier. I regret that I cannot remember whether the hon. Gentleman was present on that occasion. In any event, we lifted the reserve because it was necessary to do so. We are concerned for the parliamentary and scrutiny process to go through. If we had not been able to vote in favour of the proposal at the Internal Market Council on 26 November, the compromise text that we were offered would have fallen. It is important that we pass these various hurdles, and that we do so by June. We must make sure that the process takes place. Such processes can take time. Had the text fallen in November, there would have been little chance of reaching any agreement by June. As it is, we still need more speed to hit the June deadline.

The Chairman: If there are no further questions, we will now debate the motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee takes note of the unnumbered explanatory memorandum dated 14th November 2001 from the Department of Trade and Industry on the amended draft Directive of the European Parliament and the Council amending for the seventh time Council Directive 76/768/EEC on the approximation of the laws of member states relating to cosmetic products; and welcomes it as a positive step towards maintaining the current high levels of protection for human health and safety whilst promoting animal welfare.[Miss Johnson.]

11.20 am

Mr. Waterson: May I belatedly say, Mr. Benton, that it is a pleasure to be serving under your chairmanship? We have had a useful set of questions and answers, and they have helped to clarify several issues. However, I wish to raise a couple of further points.

The debate has highlighted three potential conflicts. First, a balance must be struck between consumer health and animal welfare. A balance must also be struck between the protection of animals and the World Trade Organisation issue, to which I wish to return. On a procedural noteit is all very well for the Minister to say that she has debated the matter beforeit is unfortunate that the scrutiny reserve was lifted. That is not only my opinion; it is clearly the opinion of the Scrutiny Committee and its redoubtable

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Chairman, and it was also unfortunate that the relevant letter did not arrive from the Secretary of State.

That matter raises issues about the scrutiny procedures in the House, and how seriously they are taken by the Executive because, on any view, this measure represents a watering down of the original amendment. In a nutshell, what is being said is, ''Politics is the art of the possible, and because we could not get through that which we think is ideal, we are supporting this amendment.'' That is what is being said; I accept that I have paraphrased the argument, so I have not done justice to all of its strands.

Such debates are taking place against a background of continually decreasing numbers of experiments carried out on animals in the UK. I am sure that we are all pleased about that trend. With regard to that, the Library brief is helpful; it explains the trend in detail. It states that the number of procedures on animals has fallen by over 80,000 since 1989, and that:

    ''Safety and efficacy testing of pharmaceutical products and pharmaceutical quality control accounted for over 60% of these procedures.''

As the Minister has made clear, only a small percentage of such procedures were carried out for the purpose of testing cosmetics. Since November 1997, no licences have been issued for cosmetic finished-product testing, and the existing licences were amended to exclude that. I understand that 1999 was the first year when no such procedures were carried out.

I accept the Minister's statement that we are ahead of other countries in the EU. However, as always in the EU, there is the question of whether, like a wartime convoy, we travel at the speed of the fastest or the slowest ship. In light of the history that is well-documented in the relevant papers, it appears that some countries have been dragging their feet for several years, which is why we are ending up with what, on any viewI think that the Minister would accept thisis a compromise that takes account of the current political realities.

However, as all hon. Members know, many of our constituents have strong feelings about animal testing, of whatever sort. With regard to animal welfare, the previous Conservative Government's attitude was that there was little point in having excellent rules, procedures and protections in this country if we could not carry with us the other European countries, some of which had a rather different approach, historically, to animal welfare. I understand that it is still the case that about 3,000 primates, for example, are used to test medicines or vaccines.

It is also worth mentioning that as long ago as 1997 the Labour partywhich was then in Oppositionmade a manifesto pledge to set up a royal commission on animal welfare, presumably to cover issues such as that which we are currently debating. That pledge has yet to be redeemed.

Although we are discussing a specific draft amended directive, this is the sort of issue where it is helpful to stand back and look at the entire subject of animal experiments and welfare. I mentioned many

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constituents' concerns, but most reasonable people would accept that products, especially pharmaceutical products, should be tested before being used by humans and that, when appropriate, animal testing should be used in such circumstances. Most people would not argue with that principle. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury said, a distinction is to be drawn between some cosmetics in the pure sense and others. The definition that the Minister read out was pretty wide and went way beyond what I believe might be considered to be cosmetics. Nevertheless, there is a strong feeling, which I share, that it is both cruel and frivolous seriously to consider animal testing for cosmetics. That is why we have had a voluntary ban since 1997.

The amendment under consideration owes its genesis to the Belgian presidency, which clearly put a lot of effort into trying to find a compromise solution. I shall not go into detail, but in the minutes of evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee of 9 January 2002, the Minister helpfully described the background to the decision. The Chairman of that Committee asked her:

    ''Why did the Government not ask for a vote to be deferred until a later meeting in order for the House to give its views first?''

The European Scrutiny Committee recommended a debate in Committeewhich, it might be argued, is happening slightly belatedly todayand said that it expected the Government to maintain a scrutiny reserve until that debate had taken place. We now know that, in the meantime, Ministers removed the scrutiny reserve. At the time, that was linked to the question of when the Second Reading debate would be held in the European Parliament. However, we learn this morning not only that that has not taken place but that a date has not even been fixed for it. The European Scrutiny Committee must, not unreasonably, feel rather sore about how it has been handled by the Executive.

The potential conflict between consumer health and animal welfare relates to the question of alternative tests, on which we touched. The RSPCA figures that the Minister cited show that tests on cosmetic ingredients account for only about 0.3 per cent. of all animal tests undertaken throughout Europe. As she says in her letter of 4 February to the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee about finding alternative, non-animal tests:

    ''The timescale for success remains uncertain.''

She refers to

    ''the importance of continuing efforts to agree international standards for validation of alternativesvia the OECDas a major means of reducing the volume of testing on animals worldwide.''

That must surely be right. However, having said that, she helpfully goes on to sayI believe that an even more helpful report is lodged in the Library, and I am sure that most Members have idly flicked through it before this sittingthat some 14 tests are routinely used for assessing the safety of cosmetic ingredients. Only twothe skin corrosion and the phototoxicity testshave been validated by ECVAM, to which the Minister referred.

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There is an OECD alternative to a third test, for mutagenicity, and guidelines are awaited on alternatives for five existing tests. As she said, work has started on achieving validation for four others. However, that means that for the great majority of the tests, there is currently no viable alternative to animal testing. I believe that this morning she described the position as in her letter of 4 February. Nothing much has changed since that letter was written. A clear consensus is developing in the Committee that people will have no incentive to find such alternatives if the amended directive is passed in its present state. Anxiety has been expressed about that, and it is only right to register that on behalf of the Opposition.

Scepticism was expressed in the European Scrutiny Committee about the WTO. As the Minister will know, having received several letters on the subject, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, for example, expressed concern about the legal advice received by the Minister. I appreciate that Ministers do not usually reveal legal advice that they have received, but in the past the Minister has been referred to advice obtained by BUAV by Professor Philippe Sands, who revels in the title of global professor of law at New York university and professor of international law at the University of London. He recently said that

    ''the current state of WTO law enables the EU to advance cogent and persuasive arguments that it could, consistently with the WTO obligations of the European Communities and its Member States, adopt a ban on the sale in the EU of cosmetics that have been tested on animals after a specified date in the future''.

As a lawyer, I recognise that having three lawyers in a room is liable to result in three different opinions. However, having read the papers relatively recently, and considering the European Scrutiny Committee's obvious concerns, my feeling is that a respectable argument is to be made in the WTO.

Let us not run away with the idea that the WTO is a purist organisation made up of jurists and people who will make a decision in the cool light of case law. There is a lot of politics in the WTO. The hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) mentioned steel tariffs. If we are to believe the newspapersI believe everything that I read in the newspapersthe United States' decision to impose steel tariffs is, at least in part, motivated by some key mid-term elections in some steel producing areas in the USA. That may or may not be true, but there will always be a political dimension to the WTO. The Government are, rightly, being rather robust about the imposition of steel tariffs by the USA. Why are they not more robust in making the case in this instance against the WTO argument?

The Americans may make a short-term decision on steel tariffs knowing that it could be several years before the issue is sorted out in the WTO, by which time the mid-term elections will be simply a happy memory. However, that is the playing field on which such WTO matters are played out, and I wish that the Government would take a more robust line on the WTO. Perhaps another option might be to persuade the estimable and highly successful business man Mr. Mittal to go into the cosmetics business. That might be another way to achieve the same thing.

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It has been a useful discussion so far. Those are the three main issues about which we have anxieties. We believe as a party that it is right to have a voluntary ban in the UK. We are in principle opposed to testing cosmetics on animals. The next Conservative Government would support a total test ban throughout the EU and on any cosmetics, including those imported anywhere in the EU that have been tested on animals.

We also have a policy for honesty in labelling, a point to which the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth referred. All products should have clear labels about animal testing. Some companies include such commercial information as, these days, it is a selling point to say that no animals have been involved in testing a product. We believe that that should be a blanket requirement. We have three main anxieties about the directive, and I look forward to what hon. Members have to say.

11.33 am

 
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