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Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he clarify his remark that it is now illegal to describe as British in origin a product that underwent only its last process in Britain. Which legislation has made that illegal? I understood that the right hon. Gentleman had only issued guidance to trading standards officers. Guidelines do not have the force of law.
Mr. Brown: Guidelines are exactly that: they guide trading standards officers in their enforcement activities. Of course, the law is ultimately interpreted by the courts, not by politicians. Every experienced parliamentarian is familiar with that.
I did everything that I could with the regime, before it transferred, with the Food Standards Agency, to the Department of Health. If Conservative Members had really cared they had 18 years to tighten up the regime.
I shall spell out the policies that we are putting in place to help farming through very difficult times. We are providing direct financial support, practical help to individual farm businesses and a long-term vision for the future.
The House will search in vain to find such measures in the Opposition's motion. Let us consider what the Opposition propose. They call for "honesty in food-labelling". That implies that we do not have that at present, and that for the 18 years they were in government, we did. As I understand it, they mean compulsory country of origin labelling of food. That is an occupied field in the European Union.
The Opposition know full well that by acting unilaterally on food labelling, we would be in breach of the rules of the European single market. We are lobbying the Commission for improvements in Community food labelling laws. In particular, we strongly support proposals for country of origin labelling of beef throughout the single market as a first step in that direction. In the meantime, however, as I said a moment ago, there is nothing to stop British producers labelling their produce as British. The NFU's tractor mark clearly identifies a wide range of high-quality foods produced to British farm assurance standards, and, as I have said, it is illegal to suggest that food is British if it is not.
The Opposition motion calls for a restriction in the flow of food imports. Although food standards are now a matter for the Food Standards Agency, in which health Ministers lead, I assure the House that the Government will not hesitate to ban imports that present a risk to human or animal health; but as most Opposition Members know, banning imports for other reasons is illegal under
In my earlier intervention, I said that I was not calling for a trade war. I was saying that action should be taken when there was evidence from the European Commission that the French Government had not taken sufficient steps to prevent the spread of BSE. No one is asking the Secretary of State to start a trade war; we merely ask him to accept that there is overwhelming evidence--from the European Commission itself--that the import of French beef is not safe. If the right hon. Gentleman will not act even when it is a question of public safety, why on earth does he think that anyone should take him seriously when he dismisses the evidence and accuses us of starting a trade war?
Mr. Brown: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should take more interest in current affairs. He will have noted that the House has passed legislation setting up the Food Standards Agency, that the responsibilities that he urges me to carry out are now matters for the Secretary of State for Health, and that Government collectively are now professionally advised by the agency.
The hon. Gentleman would like to ban French imports for chauvinist and protectionist reasons, and to present the outcome as though it were a food safety measure. If there were a food safety reason, we would be told by Sir John Krebs, the head of the agency, and the Secretary of State for Health would produce legislation to protect the public. What the hon. Gentleman cannot do is wish into existence a food safety reason to disguise what are, in fact, anti-European and ideological reasons. That is not a rational way to proceed.
Mr. Yeo: I am sure that the Minister would not wish to mislead the House unwittingly. He tried to suggest that the Conservative party was advocating an illegal action in terms of a ban on imports on grounds other than health. He will be aware, however, that under the treaties imports can be prohibited or restricted on grounds of public morality. On 22 June last year, he gave me the following written answer:
The fact is that this law has been much invoked and much tested by the courts. I am thinking of, for instance, a case with which I suspect some former Conservative Ministers sitting behind the hon. Gentleman will be very
Let me also remind the House of the Factortame dispute, which had similar protectionist origins. If Conservative Members find no other argument persuasive, however, let me cite self-interest. As a nation, we export some £10 billion worth of food and drink per year, and hundreds of thousands of jobs are involved in those important British industries. More than half of that is exported to the European Union. What is the sense in putting all that in jeopardy? The case for protectionism is always very specific. The case for free trade is general, but it is overwhelming.
There was a time when Conservative Members stood for trade, markets and freedom to buy and sell things without restraint--but not now. The response from the hon. Member for South Suffolk is very English and very protectionist. If things carry on as they are, he will be promising to reintroduce the Navigation Acts and there will be a fight in the Conservative party over the corn laws. That is the direction in which Conservative Members are going--back to the future with a vengeance.
Mr. Yeo: I had a feeling that the Minister would try to get on to this point. I make it absolutely clear that not a single penny will be found from the agriculture budget to fund the substantial and popular Tory tax cuts.
Mr. Brown: I knew that I was right to say that I actually quite like the hon. Gentleman, and I thank him for that. Would he like to intervene again and explain where the money is coming from? More fair-minded than that one cannot get. Then perhaps he could help me on this: which Opposition Front-Bench spokesman can explain to me where the cuts would fall?
Mr. Brown: I know that the hon. Gentleman is only shadowing a ministerial job, but I do not think that he will get very far just by blaming the shadow Chancellor. What if the shadow Chancellor were ever to become the real Chancellor? Still, I am grateful.
The hon. Gentleman says that he is planning to keep to our spending plans. I thank him for that; no cuts in agriculture spending; our spending plans are the right ones; Conservative Members would do what we do--but the electorate may be tempted just to let us get on and do it. If he stuck to our plans, how would he finance the new raft of policies set out in "Fair Deal for Farming", the Conservative party's policy document? If it is his intention--this is implicit in his remark--to finance it by taking money from policies that we are spending money on and spending that on other policies that he wants, will he say which policies those will be--or will there be more money for agriculture? The hon. Gentleman has no response; farmers will be interested in that.