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Baroness Buscombe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the regulations. There is one matter upon which I should like to question him. When he says that the regulations mean that parents will not have to choose between being a good parent and holding down a job, does he mean that someone who does not choose to take parental leave is not a good parent?
Lord Sainsbury of Turville: No, my Lords, we are not making judgments. The nature of all this legislation is to give people the choice. If they do not want to take the leave, it is not for us to comment. We want to make certain that people have the opportunity if they so desire. I think we can all unite in that approach.
We live in a changing society. The traditional image of the breadwinner husband and the home-making wife will become an outdated concept as we move into the 21st century. More women are entering the labour market, and more men want to play a role in caring for their children. Family friendly employment practices can help people care for their family without risk to their jobs.
Taken with the new rights in regard to time off for family emergencies, these rights will foster a culture change in the workplace. We shall be working with the business community over the coming months to promote good practice in balancing work and home commitments among employers; and we shall encourage business to go beyond the legal minimum in its own interests. The maternity and parental leave regulations represent a significant step forward towards a family friendly culture. I commend the regulations to the House.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, these regulations are essentially a consolidation of regulations specifying maximum residue levels (MRLs) introduced in 1994 and five subsequent sets of amending regulations. They also introduce MRLs for one new pesticide.
As I have indicated, virtually all the MRLs have been carried forward from earlier statutory instruments, but there are also 160 new MRLs for a recently approved pesticide--a fungicide called azoxystrobrin.
In the case of the more numerous EC MRLs, the regulations essentially make it an offence to market produce with residues above the appropriate MRL. The fine for such an offence is £5,000 on summary conviction or an unlimited fine on indictment. Similar penalties for breaches of the national MRLs are prescribed by the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. The regulations also provide powers to seize produce which exceeds any EC or national MRL.
The regulations extend to England and Wales only. The Welsh Assembly approved them in draft on 10th November. Separate regulations which will be identical in substance are planned in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I should briefly mention that MRLs for pesticide residues are sometimes represented in the media as safety levels. It is important to stress that that is not strictly the case. They are based on the maximum residue occurring in a crop when a pesticide is used as approved. To understand their significance it is helpful to consider briefly how MRLs are derived.
The starting-point is crop trials for a particular pesticide to establish the maximum residue level which will occur in a crop. The next stage involves a scientific risk assessment. The final stage in the process is for a decision to be taken on the safety of a particular pesticide use and the corresponding MRL.
I shall next describe the practical purposes served by MRLs and their link with the pesticide residues surveillance programme undertaken by government. First, MRLs provide a check that pesticide approvals have been soundly based and that the scientific assessment reflects what is actually happening in the field. Secondly, as I have indicated, MRLs are designed to reflect the approved use of a compound. They thus provide a check that farmers and growers are using pesticides in accordance with their instructions for use. Finally, they provide a standard for trade, particularly with other member states of the European Community, but also more generally. That is also a standard against which we can judge the acceptability of imported produce. MRLs apply equally to UK produce and to imports.
Those points are monitored through the pesticide residues surveillance undertaken by government. The programme, organised through the Working Party on Pesticide Residues, involves the collection of 2,000 to 3,000 samples of food each year, mainly from retail outlets around the United Kingdom. The current cost of the programme is £1.7 million per year. A substantial amount of monitoring is also conducted by the food and farming industries.
MRL exceedances are around 1 per cent each year. Most of those are sporadic, occurring at a very low frequency in any particular crop. However, occasionally there have been repeated breaches of a particular MRL. In that particular case we can take, and have taken, enforcement action and collect samples direct from growers, importers or retailers with a view to bringing prosecutions.
In conclusion, regulations on maximum residue levels represent a key part of our pesticide controls. The consolidation of the existing instruments into a single set of regulations maintains those controls and will clearly be helpful to all those who work with the regulations. I commend them to the House. I beg to move.
Lord Luke: My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the regulations. Clearly there is a need to lay down maximum residue levels in relation to the food that we eat. The Minister is right to say that the regulations are a key part of the regulatory process for approval of the use of pesticides in this country.
We on this side of the House support any measures that will contribute to food safety. The agri-chemical industry should be congratulated on the fact that more than 98 per cent of tested samples had low MRLs and 73 per cent had MRLs at zero. That indicates that, practically speaking, all food produced in this country is safe. It follows that the vast majority of British farmers and producers are using pesticides in a wise and sensible way. That is a good reason why the proposed pesticides tax makes no sense at all.
I am sure that the Minister is aware of the widespread public concern about the level and quality of inspection of imported foods. Most of it is perfectly wholesome and meets all our requirements. However, the current disquiet over inadequate labelling of imported food, together with doubts about the stringency of tests for residuals in both EU countries and the wider world, has contributed considerably to that concern. Can the Minister tell us what proportion of imported food is physically tested? Can she assure us that no foods imported from abroad have been grown with substances whose use is banned in this country? Having said that, we welcome the regulations.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, we welcome regulations that make clearer the level of pesticides in foods. I echo the concern just raised by the noble Lord. A number of well publicised cases have arisen over the past year involving lettuces imported from abroad. Often the amounts of pesticides in imported food do not match up to the very low levels found in British food. As to these regulations, in a couple of cases the levels of permitted pesticides have
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I am grateful for the fact that both speakers have welcomed the clarity of the regulations which essentially consolidate the position rather than change anything, except in respect of one particular pesticide whose name I did not pronounce very well. A question was asked about produce from other member states that contains levels of residues which exceed those in UK produce. It is difficult to make exact comparisons because different crops may be grown in different climates and be treated with different pesticides. The percentage of imported produce that exceeds MRLs tends to be a little higher than for UK produce but it is difficult to draw absolute conclusions. It is important that when those excess levels are identified action is taken. That action may be against domestic producers, if appropriate. Certainly, in the case of chlormequat in pears, which was a matter of concern, we took immediate action with the governments concerned. Following that, the Belgian Government withdrew the use of chlormequat. I believe that that proves that the monitoring process works effectively.
As to the issue of raised residues, the MRLs reflect use. Therefore, some will be raised with new usage. Essentially, these regulations do not make a major change but consolidate the position. The noble Lord, Lord Luke, referred to slightly broader issues; for example, the labelling of country of origin. We have dealt with that under various headings at different stages, for example earlier today. There is concern about that. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked about research into long-term effects. The risk assessment process for pesticides takes account of possible long-term or cumulative effects, but the noble Baroness is right to point out that we need to look at interactions and effects over long timescales. Some leading edge research takes place in this country. Last week I visited the Central Science Laboratory in York and saw for myself some of its work on pesticide residue testing. That work has altered the scientific assessment process internationally. Therefore, we are leading the field here.
The noble Lord, Lord Luke, tempted me to enter into the arguments about the pesticide tax. In view of the time and the fact that we have been reminded of family responsibilities, I must tell the noble Lord that that is a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
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