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Shona McIsaac: If the Bill becomes law and businesses are required to state the country of origin on food labels, how would infringements be dealt with? How does the hon. Gentleman envisage enforcing the Bill? If it is through trading standards officers, that would represent a cost to council tax payers and other UK taxpayers.
Mr. O'Brien: The Government would have to ensure that they were happy with any enforcement regime. One would expect them to give a steer. I hesitate to be presumptuous, but in terms of enforcement, it would be up to trading standards officers using guidelines that would flow from future legislation
Mr. Pickles: My hon. Friend is right that I did not raise the matter in my opening remarks, for some of the reasons that the hon. Member for Cleethorpes mentioned. The Bill would not create a special category of enforcement officer; enforcement would fall naturally within the existing regime and would fit the job of existing trading standards officers. Admittedly, they would have more to do, but that would represent a de minimis rather than a substantial burden on the public purse, either nationally or locally. It would certainly pale into insignificance compared with the cavalier way in which the Government place new obligations on local authorities.
If the Bill were enacted, accountability would be in place. Trading standards officers exist in any event and they would simply have a new regime to enforce. I therefore see no serious cost implications.
Mr. Hutton: I thank the hon. Gentleman again for allowing me to intervene. In my experience as a Minister, there is no such thing as a cost-free solution to these problems. I ask the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar to reflect on two matters. I assume that, if the Bill is enacted, there will be a risk of more prosecutions. Can the hon. Gentlemen explain the position of an English retailer who tries to sell on products supplied by a European Union country when the retailer's advice is that the legislation is ineffective at a European level? Does that not expose the English retailer to the risk of prosecution on a matter that is entirely outwith his or her control? Is that not unfair?
Mr. O'Brien: I shall not pretend that I am able to give a knee-jerk response to that point. Serious legal advice will need to be considered. On the point about cross-border infringement and domestic law interacting with EU and international law, I recognise that the point about conflict of law might need to be addressed. More importantly, however, the liability issue affecting the retailer could be excluded by contract, and there may need to representation by a supplier in another country. That is a matter of contract terms, so it would not be covered on the face of the Bill.
I am intrigued by the line of argument of the hon. Member for Eddisbury. He seems to be suggesting that the law of contract would supersede the Bill. That is the first time I have heard that argument. Is that how he and the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar envisage the legislation working in practice?
Mr. O'Brien: I will attempt to answer that point. However, I do not want to go too far down that track, because it is highly presumptuous to debate a legal argument on the Floor of the House when we cannot have the benefit of receiving expert legal advice. It would be very helpful if the advice given to Ministers were placed in the Library. In fact, a former Attorney-General, Lord Lyell, has suggested that the legal advice on which
Contract terms can apply only within the privity of contract between the supplier and the customerthe retailer in the Minister's examplebut general law relates to who would suffer damage. Ultimately, the consumer is damaged if he purchases something that has a false, misleading or insufficient label, but the extent of that damage will always have to be shown.
Penalties relate to the regime of trading standards and to the commercial expectations that will be set up as a result of the Bill's becoming law. The Government will obviously wish to explore that point in Committee, and I welcome that.
Will the EU negotiations or a Bill of this nature be the first to produce the outcomes and results for which consumers and farmers are clamouring? It is clear from the track record to date that the answer is a Bill of this nature. If EU negotiations, however, produced something quicker than this Bill, that would be to the advantage of all European states. It would demonstrate that we have shown the leadership that the Government claim. Parliamentarians in this country have greater expertise, experience and knowledge of food labelling than those in EU member states and we have a responsibility to bring them to bear for the benefit of all member states. That is the nature of partnership. We should show our leadership.
The hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Brent, North made positive, helpful and committed contributions. The technology is rapidly developing to enable the provisions in the Bill to become effective and practicable. I was particularly taken by the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin), for Tatton and for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). They spoke passionately about the interests of their farmers and constituents. The hon. Members for Falmouth and Camborne and for Cleethorpes also made helpful contributions that should be taken into account when the Bill is considered in Committee.
I urge the Minister to look favourably on the Bill. It is not for any party political or simple knockabout reasons that it has merited being introduced a second time. Many personal experiences have been related today. Hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise that their constituents are anxious about their ability to have confidence in labels and the information that they are given about food when, almost daily in our newspapers, so much of the news throws doubt on the safety and integrity of the food that we eat.
Producers and farmers in Britain are committed to the highest food production standards, especially compared with their competitors in Europe and the world. Pig producers, for example, have had to invest heavily to take pigs out of stalls and tethers while other EU member states manage to get a derogation. We vigilantly police the regulations, which are applied at great cost to a depressed sector of the market that does not receive subsidy from the EU. Its largest competitor, Denmark, has now obtained a further derogation for seven years, to 2014.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) on introducing the Bill, which raises some important issues. I apologise for having missed part of his speech. I came prepared to speak on a different subject. I am afraid that I always follow my old sea scout motto "Be prepared." I had a speech ready to make on the Bill, which I had to go and fetch, and I am concerned there may be insufficient time before 2.30 pm for me to make all the points that I worked up last night.
It is rather appositethird time lucky, perhapsthat I have been called to speak this afternoon. Last week I came prepared to speak on the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill and never got my chance because we ran out of time. It is interesting that we have moved from Barney the lobster's reprieve to shellfish and crustaceans, which are referred to in the Bill.
My starting point is to pick up from the last intervention made by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien). He said that enforcement was a de minimis matter for trading standards officers. If it is, why is the Bill being introduced? I should have thought that ensuring that the legislation was properly policed would require considerable extra resources on the part of trading standards officers, which would undoubtedly have an impact on the cost to local authorities and, indirectly, on the council tax payer and the Government.
I was interested to hear about the family background of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). She and I have something in common. My father was a chef, and I grew up in the hotel and catering trade, so I also have an interest in matters culinary. Perhaps we could swap some recipes later. I certainly do not intend to test your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by going through some of the issues that we talked about earlier in that respect.
One of my concerns about the Bill is that it does not deal with the dreaded issue of E numbers. We have talked a lot today about the extent to which consumers scrutinise labels on packages. I am less concerned about where food comes from than about what chemicals are in it. We have not addressed that today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) referred to the Bill's relationship to Scotland. As the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar said, Scotland is excluded from the Bill. It would be peculiar if we did not look at the impact of the Bill within the UK, let alone worldwide, as it is not confined to the EU. It would also be peculiar if people were able to sell things in Scotland