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Shona McIsaac: My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) referred to nut allergies. How will the Bill relate to restaurant food? Growing numbers of people eat out and as far as I can see there is no way that the Bill would give consumers in restaurants any information. The restaurateur would have to choose to say where the food on a menu came from.
That was a long answer to the hon. Lady's intervention. I thought that the Minister was intending to say something about it, toobut perhaps he feels that I have covered the ground sufficiently, and it does not need any further explanation. [Interruption.] The Minister says that I have muddied the water sufficiently. I thank him; I regard that as a badge of honour.
Mr. O'Brien: If a menu is not a commercial document, what is? Patently, it is an invitation to treat, which I think would be regarded as a commercial document according to most tests, because one cannot treat unless one is intending to undertake, or is in the course of, a commercial transaction. Treating implies consideration under the law. I do not know whether the hon. Lady wishes to pursue the point, but I am dredging into a deep and distant solicitor's background; I gave up practising 13 years ago, so I hope that I attended the right lectures to give her that answer.
Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Lady makes a fair interpretational criticism. The meaning is indeed intended and fairly clearbut I hope that she will agree that it would be appropriate for discussion in Committee. I do not think that it represents a fundamental flaw.
We have discussed ministerial accountability, and the value chain between consumers and producers, which we recognise is particularly important to our hard-pressed rural economyrepresented not least in the constituency of Eddisbury. If I combine my constituency with that of my hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), the total represents the largest milk field in Europe by a wide margin, in terms of both quality and value. These considerations are of intense importance to all our constituents.
My hon. Friend's Bill contains amendments that address the Government's fundamental criticisms of my Bill, and it is notable that both that Bill, 18 months ago, and the present Bill, have attracted not only the support of the National Farmers Union and the National Pig Association, but the repeated support of the Consumers Association, which has continually said that country of
Mr. Bryant: Returning to the issue of menus in restaurants, we might all accept that it is nice to know whether a piece of beef comes from Argentina, Scotland or elsewhere, but I am not sure whether the Bill would mean that the country of origin of not only the steak but the peas, the chips and the onion rings would have to be listed, too.
Mr. O'Brien: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will concede that the issue relates to consumer confidence; that would be the focus, especially as regards meat products. The wording of the subsectionlike that of all Billsis sufficiently general to ensure that, in this case, the detail could cover aspects of normal commercial life. That could include menus as well as other things. The hon. Gentleman's point would be a proper one for Committee. I hope he will agree that it would not form part of his criticism that the Bill was fundamentally flawed and should not proceed. I do not agree with those points and do not think that he substantiated them.
The measure presents the Government with a genuine and easy opportunity to further a matter of deep interest to the constituent interests that I listed earlier. The Bill has been sufficiently well thought through. Clauses 3(1) and 4(1)(e) incorporate changes which address the main concerns articulated by the then Minister of State at MAFF when we debated my Bill.
When the Minister of State, Department of Health responds, it is important for us to understand whether he has genuine concerns about the underlying concepts of the Bill. In the debate on my Bill, the Government expressed sympathy but then went on to explain why they would not support it. That caused much consternation to many of those constituent interests throughout the country and there was a great deal of publicity about it. The matter will not go unnoticed; it is of deep concern to many people.
The issues that lie behind the Bill are of sufficient moment for us to have held a serious debate today. We have to decide how quickly we want to make these improvements: either by means of a Bill or by continuing ministerial negotiations in Europe on various delegated aspects of authority and regulation. Despite numerous warm wordsI do not deny their warmthprogress has been marginal and action has been limited. I do not doubt that although the negotiations in the halls of the European Union may look serene on the surface, frantic pedalling goes on below; but for those who are not involved, it is the outcomes that matter. There is no sense that real progress has been made in the various negotiating forums of the EU. It seems that we are being forced to go at the slowest pacethat of those in the EU who have interests to protect.
The UK has some of the best and most developed food labelling and food standards regulation and authorities. It will be a bit of a disappointment and certainly a surprise if the Minister does not want to take this opportunity to
It is difficult to resist asking: why not try to introduce this legislation; why not send it to Committee; why not let it be the vehicle to explore these issues and ensure that the EU can learn from these debates rather than going through the existing labyrinthine procedures?
One important aspect that has been overlooked so farit is the only point that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar did not make in his opening remarksis that the Bill has a huge advantage which all Governments look for: it does not represent a burden on the taxpayer. To the extent that labels will have to be changed, there is a cost implication for the commercial interests affected, but given the already large number of packaging and labelling regulations, the Bill merely represents an adjustment. There is unlikely to be a cost burden on businesses.
I therefore recommend that the Minister look favourably on the Bill. In pure policy terms, the Conservative party would like to keep this attractive policy for itself because it would cost taxpayers nothing. Surely that must be of interest to the Minister.