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House of Commons

Thursday 16 March 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Associated British Ports (No. 2) Bill

Orders for Third Reading read.

To be read a Third time on Wednesday 22 March.

Associated British Ports (Hull) Bill

(By Order)

Birmingham City Council (No. 2) Bill

(By Order)

Hythe, Kent, Marina Bill

(By Order)

London Underground (Victoria) Bill

(By Order)

Wentworth Estate Bill

(By Order)

British Film Institute Southbank Bill

(By Order)

City of London (Various Powers) Bill

(By Order)

Redbridge London Borough Council Bill

(By Order)

King's Cross Railways Bill

(By Order) Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 22 March.

Oral Answers to Questions


Milk Marketing Board

1. Mr. Morgan : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met the Milk Marketing Board ; and what matters were discussed.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor : I have regular contacts with the chairman of the Milk Marketing Board to discuss various issues affecting the dairy industry.

Mr. Morgan : When the Minister last met the chairman, did he discuss the matter raised this week by Malcolm Stewart, one of the members of the board who said that treating cows with bovine somatotrophin was a disaster in marketing terms? Does the Minister agree that the British consumer has the right to know whether the milk that he or she buys comes from cows which have been treated with that artificial hormone? Does he further agree that the consumer has a right to expect that any milk which comes from BST- treated cows will be labelled to make that fact plain?

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Mr. MacGregor : We did not discuss that issue at our last meeting. As the hon. Gentleman knows, ministerial responsibilities on test certificates--the stage that we are at--are guided by the Medicines Act 1968. Under that legislation, we receive advice from the veterinary products committee, which gives clearance on safety and all the other criteria laid down by the Act before a product can go ahead for field tests.

Separate labelling has proved to be pretty well impracticable in terms of field tests. There are no licence applications for full product approval before Ministers at present, but obviously many factors would be taken into account in considering them.

Mr. Hunter : In his dealings with the Milk Marketing Board and other parties interested in the dairy sector, has my right hon. Friend encountered the same general confidence and buoyancy as is found among the majority of milk farmers in Hampshire?

Mr. MacGregor : There is a good deal of confidence in the dairy sector at present. There is no doubt that dairy incomes have been rising and that that sector of agriculture is in good heart.

Dr. David Clark : Does the Minister deny that at its meetings in June and July 1988 the veterinary products committee considered and rejected an application by Monsanto for a product licence for BST on grounds of safety and that that fact is confirmed in its minutes of September 1988? Will the Minister now call a halt to the experiment with BST?

Mr. MacGregor : When the veterinary products committee considers a product licence, it has to consider many factors. It may have to engage in prolonged discussions with a company before it makes any recommendations and before anything comes before Ministers. Moreover, the same product also has to be scrutinised at European Community level. I repeat that nothing has yet come before Ministers in terms of applications for product licences. There would be a lengthy process of scrutiny before any recommendation was made to Ministers as to whether a product should be approved.

Mr. Marlow : As a libertarian who would obviously set his face like flint against a nanny state, will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will not prevent free-born Englishmen from drinking unpasteurised milk if they wish to do so?

Mr. MacGregor : I acknowledge that there are some difficult issues. I am very much on the side of wishing to give absolute freedom of choice wherever possible. We came to the conclusion that we should propose a ban for unpasteurised milk but not for products made from unpasteurised milk on two grounds. We did so, first, on advice from the chief medical officer and on medical advice generally that there was no way of making the product safe for consumers except through pasteurisation and, secondly, on the experience in Scotland, where the product is already banned. There has been a big reduction in the number of food poisoning cases there compared with England and Wales. It was not an easy decision and it is one where there must be a balance of considerations.

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Food (Legislation)

2. Mr. Hinchliffe : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a further statement about his proposals to change the legislation relating to food.

Mr. MacGregor : Work on the review of food legislation that we announced in October 1987 is well advanced and I hope to come forward with proposals for new legislation as soon as the parliamentary timetable permits.

Mr. Hinchliffe : As the Government consider that cook-chill catering is safe if the 1980 guidelines are followed, what action are the Government taking against those supermarkets which are plainly breaching those guidelines in selling cook-chill food?

Mr. MacGregor : We are doing a great deal of research in that area. We are working with retailers and manufacturers to ensure that the processing is sufficient to kill listeria and that subsequent handling is at temperatures that will prevent reinfection. In addition, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health is preparing to consult shortly, as required by the Food Act 1984 on the draft regulations and he is proposing to apply temperature controls at all stages in the distribution chain, including retail shops.

Mr. Boswell : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the principles underlying his new legislation should be the maximum consumer information through labelling and the minimum statutory interference and control, which must be only on essential food safety grounds?

Mr. MacGregor : The principle of maximum labelling and information to the consumer is one that we already follow in operating all our many food safety procedures under existing legislation. There are, however, gaps in the existing legislation--not least because of the advances in food technology, processes and products. That is why we took the view that it was necessary to carry out a review of existing food legislation and to consider what further steps would be required to ensure that we have all the necessary mechanisms to protect the consumer throughout the food chain.

Mr. Ron Davies : We have not heard a great deal recently from the Minister about his 17-point plan to deal with salmonella in eggs. Will he confirm that many of the items in that programme require parliamentary legislation, which has not been brought before the House, so the programme is not being implemented? Will he explain his Department's tardiness in preparing the orders and tell us when we can expect to see them in the House?

Mr. MacGregor : If the hon. Gentleman has not heard a great deal, it is because he has not noticed that legislation is being produced and in many cases is before the House. We are proceeding rapidly with the 17 measures. Some still require quite complex statutory regulations, which is being prepared, and in some cases there has had to be consultation. Quite a number of the regulations, however, have already gone through or are currently going through the House, and the rest will be before the House shortly.

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3. Mr. Paice : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met representatives of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds ; and what matters were discussed.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder) : My right hon. Friend the Minister and I met the chairman of the RSPB council on 17 November, when we discussed the RSPB's consultation paper on the reform of the common agricultural policy.

I had a separate meeting with the chairman on 3 November, at which we discussed a wider range of issues. Both those meetings were extremely helpful and constructive.

Mr. Paice : When the Minister next has the chance to discuss matters of mutual interest with the RSPB, will he stress the beneficial effects of Government policy such as the farm woodland scheme and the new capital grant scheme? Will he also explain to the RSPB the Government's views on the European Commission's draft directive on habitats, which would mean that much of the rest of Europe would be forced to follow our excellent example in habitat protection?

Mr. Ryder : The latest issue of the RSPB publication, Birds, congratulates the Government on the farm woodland scheme and the farm and conservation grant scheme to which my hon. Friend referred. As my hon. Friend may know, this Government together with all Governments in the European Economic Community unanimously rejected the habitat directive when it was discussed by the Council recently. However, there is wide support for a British idea and we hope that our European partners will support us. We have much to teach them on the subject and I believe that that is recognised by the RSPB.

Mr. Dalyell : I do not wish to be critical, as I know that there are difficulties, but will the Minister investigate the conditions under which birds are imported from Amazonia and West Africa? Will he also look into the increasing theft of rare parrots, which is quite improper? It may be difficult to do anything about this, but does he agree that it is at least worthy of ministerial attention?

Mr. Ryder : It is indeed worthy of ministerial attention and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall look into the matter.

Council for the Protection of Rural England

4. Mr. Hanley : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met the Council for the Protection of Rural England ; and what matters were discussed.

Mr. Ryder : I met the chairman and other leading figures in the Council for the Protection of Rural England on 7 November. We discussed several countryside issues at what was a very helpful and constructive meeting. Subsequently, Fiona Reynolds, assistant director of the CPRE, kindly addressed a meeting of my constituents in Norfolk on 27 January.

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Mr. Hanley : Does my hon. Friend agree with the CPRE's concern about rural housing? Does he believe that our right hon. Friend the Chancellor's recent Budget Statement about land for the development of low- cost housing being free of capital gains tax will receive a warm welcome, and what does he estimate will be the take-up in the coming year?

Mr. Ryder : I hope that the whole House will welcome the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to which my hon. Friend refers. I am due to meet the CPRE again soon and I shall be surprised indeed if it does not express wholehearted support for that measure.

Mr. Martin Jones : Did the Minister discuss with the CPRE the possibility of water authorities in England demanding a percentage of the environmentally sensitive area payments from their tenants? Is he aware that that is what the Welsh water authority is doing in Wales, and does he agree that it is deplorable? Has the Minister received any representations about that?

Mr. Ryder : I have not discussed that matter with the CPRE, but I will raise it at our next meeting.

Mr. Hicks : Can my hon. Friend assure the House that in any discussions that he has with any organisation about the countryside and the rural economy he will place great emphasis on the decisions recently taken by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for the Environment to give positive encouragement to the provision of low-cost housing for local people in rural areas?

Mr. Ryder : My hon. Friend has highlighted two important decisions taken by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for the Environment. I should be surprised if anyone living in a rural area did not fully support those announcements.

Mr. Home Robertson : Has the Minister given any explanation to the CPRE for the Government's merciless hostility towards people who live and work in rural Britain? How are people living and working on farms supposed to keep their heads above the cost of privatised water, let alone get involved in popular capitalism, when their incomes are not even keeping pace with the Chancellor's 8 per cent. rate of inflation? In particular, how does the Minister suppose that the 552 people working on farms in the vale of Glamorgan will cope with the Government's viciously anti-rural poll tax when it is introduced next year?

Mr. Ryder : The people living in the constituency to which the hon. Gentleman refers will return the Conservative candidate at the by-election. Indeed, if the level of debate in that campaign is comparable with that of the hon. Gentleman's question the Conservative majority will undoubtedly be increased.

Sir Michael Shaw : Does my hon. Friend intend stressing at his next meeting with the CPRE that everyone should have the utmost sympathy for planning applications made by hard-pressed farmers seeking to diversify their activities?

Mr. Ryder : My hon. Friend may be aware of the new planning guide for farmers that the Department issued in January. I shall be happy to make copies available to my

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hon. Friend's constituents. We have received a large number of requests for the guide, which is proving a great success throughout the country.

Food (Labelling)

6. Mr. Flynn : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what discussions he is having in the European Community with regard to the labelling of food.

Mr. Ryder : A "common position" has been reached on proposed amendments to the food labelling directive. Those are now with the European Parliament before returning to the Council for final adoption. Proposals on nutrition labelling are also being discussed in Brussels.

Mr. Flynn : Has the hon. Gentleman discussed with his fellow EEC Ministers the practice of labelling eggs for sale as being "salmonella- free"? Is he aware that that practice continues in this country and many consumers are being misled because no scientific test for salmonella can be carried out without destroying the egg itself? What does he intend to do to stop the practice?

Mr. Ryder : The hon. Gentleman is correct. Without breaking the egg, there can be no guarantee that it is salmonella-free. In a European context, the matter is being discussed by European vets, who decided to put it on the agenda for their meetings at the beginning of December.

Mr. David Nicholson : Did my hon. Friend receive any

representations from our EEC partners about the British practice of labelling green-top milk? Will he confirm that, with the possible exception of Denmark, no other EEC country bans the sale of unpasteurised milk?

Mr. Ryder : As my hon. Friend is aware, my right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Wales published a consultation document on that issue. We look to organisations representing the industry and consumers to respond as soon as possible before a final decision is taken.

Mrs. Clwyd : Will the Minister discuss with our European partners the labelling of food used in airline meals following the serious report submitted to his Department by the three environmental health authorities at Heathrow which reveals that a quarter of all the airline meals sampled were contaminated with potentially dangerous bacteria and at least four were contaminated with salmonella? Given the international implications of carrying meals on airlines, does the Minister agree that meals should be labelled correctly and that the methods of cook-chilling and re-heating meals on aircraft should be standardised?

Mr. Ryder : I agree with the hon. Lady that every effort must be made by authorities, organisations, firms and airlines to ensure that the food served to airline customers is safe. I will certainly do my best to look into the matter.


7. Mr. Corbyn : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what further action his Department is taking to protect hedgerows and to encourage the planting of new hedges.

Mr. Ryder : The new farm and conservation grant scheme makes generous provision for the planting,

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replacement or improvement of hedges. That work may include hedgerow trees and any necessary protective fencing. Through the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service, we also offer advice on trimming and maintenance of hedges, and on the time of year when cutting and trimming is best carried out for the benefit of wildlife.

Mr. Corbyn : I am sure that the Minister accepts that the presence of hedgerows is important in protecting wildlife and providing refuge, as well as in preventing soil erosion by wind or water. It is therefore important to increase the number of miles of hedgerows in this country, not decrease them. Will the Minister bring in statutory controls so that hedgerows cannot be removed without special permission? Does he agree that it is necessary to increase the upland hedgerow grant, which has been cut? Will he also agree to give sufficient training to farmworkers, as well as money for that training, so that the skills lost by the removal of so many hedgerows can be replaced? Does he acknowledge that hedgerows are a vital part of the countryside and of our ecosystem that we all need and enjoy?

Mr. Ryder : Legislation may have its attractions to some people, but controls of the kind suggested by the hon. Gentleman would be wholly impractical and unworkable. We have increased grants for the planting of hedgerows in lowland areas, because it is in those areas of Britain-- notably East Anglia and the east midlands--that most hedgerows have been lost in the past 40 years. That is why hedgerow grants for lowland areas have been increased to 40 per cent., and why there has already been considerable uptake of the new grant scheme.

Sir Anthony Grant : Will my hon. Friend give a word of praise to those farmers in East Anglia who have spent a great deal of money and effort in replacing trees and hedgerows and who are just as concerned about the environment in which they live as are the town folk of Islington and elsewhere?

Mr. Ryder : As an East Anglian I am only too happy to respond positively to my hon. Friend. There are many parts of East Anglia where, throughout the course of the past 10 years, enlightened farmers have planted trees all over the place. The grants which we have made available-- the 40 per cent. to which I have referred--should be taken up by more farmers in East Anglia because more trees should be planted there.

Mr. Hardy : Does the Minister accept that, ecologically, the existence and protection of hedgerows is of considerable importance and has been neglected? Does he accept the Prime Minister's estimate that 120,000 miles of hedgerow have been destroyed and, in view of that assessment, does he share my regret at the Prime Minister's insistence that my Hedgerows Bill should continue to be blocked?

Mr. Ryder : The hon. Gentleman is a distinguished member of the council of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and I should be grateful if he would pass on the congratulations of the House to the RSPB in its centenary year--[ Hon. Members :-- "Answer the question".] With regard to the hon. Gentleman's Bill, as I said to his hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), it would be wholly impractical and unworkable to enforce legislation on the lines that he set

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out. That is why the Government are not prepared to support the Bill. I have seen a copy of the letter that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote to the hon. Gentleman earlier this week. The arguments set out in that letter represent the arguments of the entire Government.

Egg Industry

9. Mr. John Townend : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the present position in the egg industry.

Mr. MacGregor : Contacts with major packers indicate considerable variations in sales but overall these may be about 75 per cent. to 80 per cent. of levels experienced in November. Packing station throughput has fallen by about 13 per cent. The balance is going for export and into egg products. Total returns to producers, including bonuses, are about 34p per dozen--still considerably below production costs, which are currently rather more than 40p per dozen.

Mr. Townend : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the slaughter policy for salmonella-infected chickens, which was advocated by me and by many of my hon. Friends, has been warmly welcomed by the industry?

Is he further aware, however, of the serious anomaly in the compensation scheme whereby the compensation for laying birds is the same as for breeding birds, although the latter are worth four times the former? That seems most unfair. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the matter with a view to increasing the compensation for breeding birds?

Mr. MacGregor : I confirm my hon. Friend's first point and I am grateful to the industry for welcoming the slaughter policy. On the second point, my hon. Friend will know that under the Animal Health Act 1981 the Government are required to pay compensation whenever compulsory slaughter is imposed. We propose that compensation will normally be assessed by reference to a scale of values which takes into account the fact that the birds are from a flock known to be infested with salmonella. I do not wish to raise any expectations on the part of my hon. Friend, but I shall be happy for him to write to me on the point about which he is concerned.

Mr. Tony Banks : Will the Minister give a clear, unequivocal guarantee that it is okay to eat Cadbury's Easter eggs this year without having to boil them first?

Mr. MacGregor : Yes, Sir.

Mr. Knapman : Does my right hon. Friend agree that eggs remain a very valuable source of protein at a modest price?

Mr. MacGregor : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I can assure him that my family and I--like the large number of families that I have met in recent weeks--continue to eat eggs in the way that we always have done, taking into account the chief medical officer's advice about raw eggs.

Mr. Mallon : Does the Minister agree that when setting up the working party to examine all aspects of egg production and hygiene it was a mistake not to include someone from the Department of Agriculture of the North of Ireland? Does he agree that it would make sense to learn

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from the experience of Northern Ireland, where egg production has been kept salmonella-free and has left us able to say that we in Northern Ireland are the good eggs?

Mr. MacGregor : The working party was considering what further information and research on salmonella was required. As that related to the position in England, Scotland and Wales particularly, it was right to draw the working party's members from each of those areas. I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I think that I have done on other occasions, that we try to learn what we can from the experience of Northern Ireland, which, as he says, is salmonella-free.

Dr. David Clark : Will the Minister confirm that the egg and poultry industry has failed to provide funds for the continuation of research into reducing salmonella at the Institute of Food Research at Bristol? Does he not agree that it is a scandal that the three members of staff working on the competitive exclusion project at Bristol will be made redundant as from tomorrow?

Mr. MacGregor : We have made it clear many times that the decisions about that project were made before the recent concern about salmonella, and were based on the view that the fundamental research work had been completed. As the hon. Gentleman knows, some companies are using that research to develop projects in the market place, and I hope that others will continue to look at it. That is the present requirement.

We spend considerable sums each year on more general salmonella research. The money that will no longer be provided for the Bristol research project that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned will be applied to other types of microbiological research where it is needed, and I am now actively reaching my final conclusions on the working party's recommendations on further research into salmonella.

Fraud (EC)

12. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what discussions he has had with his colleagues in the European Council of Ministers concerning fraud within the European Community.

Mr. MacGregor : I have regularly raised in the Agriculture Council the problem of fraud within the European Community, most recently in the November 1988 and February 1989 Councils.

Mr. Skinner : Did the Minister tell the people in charge of the corruption department in the Common Market that the British taxpayer is fed up to the back teeth with having to dole out something approaching £6 billion last year for the Mafia to make money out of olive trees that do not even exist? Is it not a scandal that, when every family in Britain is paying £16 a week into the common agricultural policy, £5 a week of that is going on fraud? The money should go into the pockets of the farmworkers, who have just been offered a miserly 7 per cent.

Mr. MacGregor : By definition, we do not know the exact scale of money involved in fraud in the European Community, although various estimates have been made. This is, however, a historic occasion : for once I can agree with part of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I think that it is the first time that that has ever happened.

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Mr. Skinner : Can I have that in writing?

Mr. MacGregor : It will be in writing. I entirely agree that wherever fraud exists in the Community--and it almost certainly exists on too large a scale in the CAP--it is important for us to take all possible steps to eradicate it. The British Government have taken the lead in arguing for that, and in putting forward action programmes to deal with the problem.

Mr. Gill : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, contrary to the belief of the Opposition parties--who would have us think that more inspectors and auditors would prevent fraud--the answer is to reform the system? That is what we are now doing. The reduction of beef intervention to 200,000 tonnes is a step in the right direction, although the complete answer is the obviation of beef intervention altogether.

Mr. MacGregor : I certainly agree that changes in various policies and schemes in the CAP will go a considerable way towards reducing opportunities for fraud. As well as the proposal that my hon. Friend has mentioned, we are strongly urging the elimination of monetary compensation amounts by 1992, which would also be very helpful. I think, however, that it is also necessary to have the apparatus to check, control and monitor what is going on in the system, and that is why we supported the setting up of the anti-fraud unit in the Commission.

Mr. Hardy : While welcoming the Minister's view of fraud in other member states, may I ask him to comment on the situation in this country, where a person involved in grain storage confessed in a Central Television programme to the most outrageous practices? Many people expected a prosecution to follow and still cannot understand why confessions in such public conditions should not have resulted in a prosecution.

Mr. MacGregor : I shall have to look into that case. I have not seen the television programme to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I assure him that we follow up all cases of suspected fraud. Successful action was taken between 1984 and 1988 in 41 cases of fraud under the CAP ; 19 were prosecuted and the others were settled out of court. Of the 19, there were nine prison sentences and fines of up to £40,000. I also assure the hon. Gentleman that the question of identifying checks on CAP products, particularly with a view to tracing fraud, is now a high priority in the current Customs and Excise management planning programme. We are anxious to ensure that we carry out the proper checks and follow them up in this country.

Potato Producers

13. Mr. Tredinnick : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met representatives of potato producers and distributors ; what was discussed ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Ryder : My right hon. Friend met the National Farmers Union and the Scottish National Farmers Union on 1 March 1989 and the Potato Marketing Board and the Potato Processors Association on 8 March 1989, to discuss

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their responses to the Government's consultation paper on future potato market policy. All responses are now being considered and a decision will not be delayed unduly.

Mr. Tredinnick : Will my hon. Friend assure consumers that whatever his decision on the Potato Marketing Board, there will continue to be a plentiful supply of first-class potatoes at a price everyone can afford?

Mr. Ryder : I am happy to give my hon. Friend that firm, unyielding commitment.

Mr. Colin Shepherd : Is my hon. Friend aware that in the west midlands, in my part of the world, both the large-scale professional potato growers and the small-scale growers are of like mind that the third option of his consultative paper would be the right way to go in that it would remove the public money dimension? Would it not be advisable to give the industry the solution that it would prefer?

Mr. Ryder : My hon. Friend is tempting me to comment on each of the three options before a decision is taken. Alas, I cannot do that, but I assure him that a decision will be taken soon and that the views of hon. Members will be taken into account.

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