Orders for Second Reading read.
To be read a Second time upon Thursday 14 April.
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Gillian Shephard) : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales anI are consulting on the milk marketing board's amended reorganisation scheme.
Mr. Marshall : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the milk market is in a state of structural deficit because of the operation of quotas ? Does she therefore further agree that if Milk Marque--whose motto is "He who dares, wins"--obtains 80 per cent. of the milk market, as it wants to, there is a danger that there will be exploitation of the consumer and of the food processing industry, and a loss of jobs in that industry ? Does that not provide an unanswerable case for having a milk regulator ?
Mrs. Shephard : My hon. Friend is fresh from his agricultural triumphs of yesterday, but he appears to be proposing a form of "Ofmilk" that I do not entirely favour. The Government's view is that Milk Marque should be subject to the competition authorities, exactly like any other business. We regard that as an adequate protection for consumers, producers and businesses.
Mr. Luff : May I urge my right hon. Friend to resist the pressure from the industrial giants of the dairy business and to stand up instead for the interests of the dairy farmers of Worcestershire and the rest of the country by ending the uncertainty over the marketing of milk at the earliest possible date ? Is she aware that in my constituency of Worcester, where Milk Marque will have its headquarters,
Column 404creating up to 50 new jobs, there is enthusiasm for the idea that the free market in milk, along the lines suggested by the MMB, should come into existence by the end of the year at the latest ?
Mrs. Shephard : Both my hon. Friends have clearly illustrated the balance that needs to be maintained between the interests of producers, consumers and business. I greatly regret the delay in setting up the new revised arrangements--1 April was the date selected by the board itself-- but I remind my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) that, in the interests of his constituents and of consumers, producers and businesses, it is more important to get the arrangements right than to proceed too quickly to an artificial deadline.
Mr. Maxton : What representations has the right hon. Lady received and what discussions has she had with the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that, whatever the future structure for the marketing of milk in England may be, it will actively encourage greater sale and use of both skimmed and semi-skimmed milk for the sake of the future health of the nation ?
Mrs. Shephard : We are in close touch with the Department of Health both on the excellent document "The Health of the Nation" and on all kinds of advice given to consumers. As I have said in the past, I believe that common sense should prevail in such matters.
Mr. John D. Taylor : Is the Minister aware that in all sectors of the milk industry there is growing impatience at the Government's delay, caused partly by the MMB, in reaching a firm decision on the reorganisation of milk marketing in England and Wales ?
Mrs. Shephard : Yes. As I have already said, I greatly regret the delay. Considerable progress is now being made. MAFF officials have had many discussions with the board about the scheme, and the board has now submitted amendments to the reorganisation scheme. A further set of amendments was submitted as recently as 2 March. We issued the consultation document for producers, consumers and other businesses on 9 March, and we have asked for responses by 8 April, so I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that we are pushing matters on.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Michael Jack) : We have launched a number of initiatives. The latest is the continental challenge which is helping United Kingdom food suppliers to exploit the opportunities presented by the continental retail market.
Mr. Hendry : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he confirm that the food trade deficit has halved since the 1960s, and will he welcome the new food marketing course unveiled by my right hon. Friend the Minister at Sheffield Hallam university, which shows that the Government, the producers and the academic world are working together more closely than ever before to boost British food exports ?
Mr. Jack : I thank my hon. Friend and can confirm the contribution that our approach to food marketing has made to help to reduce the current food deficit, which is still all too large, but at least progress has been made in the right direction. He is right to emphasise marketing, which is the key to ensuring that food producers produce what the marketplace wants, whether at home or abroad.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : Would not the Germans be much reassured about imported beef if there were a live test for bovine spongiform encephalopathy available in the United Kingdom ? May we have an absolute assurance that the Government are supporting every project to research the issue of a live test ?
Mr. Jack : I think that the German Government would do themselves a great favour if they considered the excellent scientific report on the safety of British beef which has already been agreed not only by scientists in the United Kingdom but by Community scientists. The German Government are waging a wholly spurious campaign. We consider every sensible proposal for additional research in this sphere, but, as I said, the German Government could do far worse than examine the evidence already before them.
Mr. Hicks : Does my hon. Friend recall that a few years ago the United Kingdom used to export pigmeat and pigmeat products ? Is he aware that that is no longer the case, partly due to the decline of our domestic production as a consequence of the alleged illegal dumping of pigmeat and pigmeat products on our market by our European competitors ?
Mr. Jack : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister has raised in the Council of Ministers and with the Commissioner questions of, for example, illegal state aid in France. I refer my hon. Friend to a recent report produced by the Meat and Livestock Commission which examined the pig industry. He will find in it some interesting facts, especially in relation to the type of pig produced here and our processing industry which, if altered, would deal with some of the marketing problems to which my hon. Friend rightly referred.
Dr. Strang : But surely the Minister recognises that the German Government's decision to press for a ban on the import of British beef into Germany has aroused British concern about BSE ? I accept that there is no evidence of a link between BSE in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in human beings, but is the Minister satisfied that the Medical Research Council has all the resources that it needs to do all the research that it can, taking into account the fact that the incubation period for CJD in human beings is very long ? Will he welcome the German Government's decision to embark on their own research project to consider the possibility, however remote, of a link between BSE and CJD ? In the meantime-- [Interruption.] It is a very important issue
Madam Speaker : Order. I am sure that it is a very important issue, but a supplementary question means one question, not a catalogue of statements or long explanations. There should be only one supplementary question, from wherever it comes.
Dr. Strang : I am grateful, Madam Speaker. Will the Minister reconsider the decision not to accept the Select Committee's recommendation to ban the use of calf brain and offal in the human food chain ?
Mr. Jack : I am surprised at the line that the hon. Gentleman has taken on this serious matter, because the way in which he approaches it lends credence to some of the misleading reports that certain newspapers have published on BSE in this country. The reporting of half bits of information and half-truths without exploring the excellent science base that already exists does not diminish in any way the statements of safety that have been made about the consumption of home-produced beef.
As I said a moment ago, in my view, the German Government will look carefully at our own science which is excellently resourced, as is the science in the European Community. If they want to do their own scientific tests, they can do so. However, what they are proposing is illegal, it breaks the single market concept and it is fundamentally wrong.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton : Does my hon. Friend accept that reducing production costs is a way to encourage the export of food and food products from this country ? Therefore, will the Ministry look favourably at a proposal from my constituents trading as Flightpath Farmers, who want to feed the modest excess of quota that they are producing on their dairy farms as dried milk to their stock, thus reducing their costs ?
Mr. Jack : Flightpath Farmers are flying high with their ideas this afternoon. Of course, we welcome ideas to reduce the costs of the production of foodstuffs. Much of our research and development effort is directed at just that point. I think that my hon. Friend has raised the issue with my right hon. Friend the Minister, and I can assure him that it will be looked into very carefully.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nicholas Soames) : Deregulation, prudently and carefully applied, will improve the position of the livestock industry while protecting animal health and welfare.
Mr. Prentice : Does the Minister accept that BSE, with all its appalling consequences, would never have happened were it not for deregulation of the meat rendering industry ? Does he agree that there is a close connection between deregulation and threats to animal and, indeed, human health ?
Mr. Soames : No, on neither of those two points do I agree. The purpose of the deregulation initiative is to question, rightly, the justification for every regulation. The Government's intention at all times is to protect human and animal health, to protect animal welfare and to safeguard taxpayers' money. We will do nothing to compromise either human health or animal welfare.
Column 407phasing out of tethers and dry sow stalls, will put them at a commercial disadvantage compared with their competitors on the continent ? Will his Department consider ways of helping them when they are faced with significant reinvestment ? If there is no aid, we will see a decline in the British pig market and an increase in the importation of pigmeat.
Mr. Soames : My hon. Friend speaks from a position of considerable knowledge, having more pig farmers in his constituency than any other hon. Member, so we treat what he says with considerable respect. As he knows, aid will not be available for the transition period. However, I can assure him that animal welfare remains extremely important in this country, as he will realise ; it adds greatly to the selling power of British goods, and it is wrong to think otherwise. The people of Britain attach great importance to it. I assure my hon. Friend that we will not introduce unilaterally any new measures that would be to the economic detriment of our producers.
Mr. Alex Carlile : Does the Minister agree that the greatest contribution that could be made to the welfare of sheep in this country would be the reintroduction of compulsory sheep dipping ? Is he aware that there is a terrible incidence of sheep scab affecting potentially about 1 million sheep in my constituency as a result of the absence of compulsory dipping ?
Mr. Soames : The hon. and learned Gentleman is at odds in his argument. When there were compulsory controls, sheep scab was never properly under control. Now that the regulations have been abandoned, there is still exactly the same remedy as there always was for controlling sheep scab, which, as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well, is to dip his sheep, and farmers should do so.
5. Mr. Bennett : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if she will make a statement about access to the environmentally sensitive areas of West Penwith, Somerset, lakes and moors, the South Downs, the Pennines, the Dales and the Broads and the payment farmers will receive in return for such public access.
Mr. Bennett : Does the Minister accept that it is welcome that there is to be extra public access both to those areas and to areas that are covered by country stewardship schemes, but how are the general public to find out which areas they are now entitled to go into ?
Mr. Jack : The hon. Gentleman is a member of the Ramblers Association and, apart from walking "them thar hills", he and his colleagues have an important function in ensuring that the message about extra access to environmentally sensitive areas is made available to walkers. We will also be making the information available to local authorities, tourist information centres and local libraries. We will try to ensure that farms are properly signposted so that walkers will know where the new and excellent facility is available.
Mr. David Nicholson : I welcome what my hon. Friend has said about this initiative, but is he aware that it has been fairly difficult in recent weeks for anyone to have access to the Somerset moors and levels because they have been flooded by up to 8 or 10 ft in some areas ? While that may be good news for birds, it is pretty bad news for farmers. Will he do all that he can to put pressure on the National Rivers Authority to improve its pumping and dredging activities ?
Mr. Jack : I am aware of the problem to which my hon. Friend rightly draws attention. I will look into the point about the NRA and see precisely what progress has been made about the pumping arrangements. He will appreciate that ensuring that there is a proper and adequate water level on a more permanent basis is central to improving the environmental area of the Somerset levels.
Ms Corston : Even though farm workers earn only 70 per cent. of the average industrial wage, does the Minister agree that the poverty of farm workers will be made worse if the agricultural wages board is not committed to set a whole range of statutory rights, including minimum rates of pay, overtime rates, sick pay schemes, holiday schemes and maximum rents for agricultural tied cottages ? Will the right hon. Lady undertake to retain the wages board in its present form ?
Mrs. Shephard : The hon. Lady will know that the agricultural wages board is subject to a review every five years, and that this time we are taking the opportunity to review the workings of the board. She will also know that we have had a large response to consultations, with some 4,000 responses in all. The vast majority of those were in favour of the retention of the board. The complications that the hon. Lady outlines are among the issues that my right hon. Friends and I will be taking into account, and I hope to make an announcement soon.
Sir Jerry Wiggin : In spite of her answer, does my right hon. Friend recognise that the good arguments that have been used for the abolition of all the other statutory wages boards apply equally to the agricultural wages board ? Does she agree that, given a free market, it is more than likely that the average level of wages would rise ? She should not be subsumed by the siren voices of those who would like their negotiations to be carried out for them.
Mrs. Shephard : My hon. Friend is quite right that the Government in general believe that all barriers to employment should be removed, and that statutory wage controls distort wage and employment levels and destroy jobs. However, he would be the first to recognise the quite overwhelming support among employers and employees in the agriculture industry for the retention of the board. It is interesting to note that the Tenant Farmers Association
Column 409supports the abolition, and so do some individual National Farmers Union commodity committees, in particular the potato committee.
Dr. Strang : Is the Minister aware that, even with yesterday's increase, which comes into operation in June, the average hourly pay of farm workers--excluding overtime, but including bonuses--will still be less than three quarters of the industrial average ? Will she take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) that it will not be sufficient to retain the boards, but that it is crucial that she retains all the legislation that provides minimum rates of pay at every level and a statutory right to holidays and to holiday and sick pay ?
Mrs. Shephard : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the wages announced yesterday were set by the board, with representation from both sides of the industry. I am sure that he is also aware that the wages of agricultural workers fall below the average wage ; but so do those of other groups--people in a number of manufacturing sectors, distribution, repairs, hotels and catering, construction, transport and communication.
Mr. Soames : Under Council regulations, maximum residue limits must be established by 1996 for active ingredients in veterinary medicines used in food-producing species, including horses. That does not apply if a horse is not destined for human consumption.
Mr. Heald : I welcome my hon. Friend's reply. Does he agree that is important that ponies should be protected, and would he care to comment further on the position concerning ponies and their owners ?
Mr. Soames : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That matter is dear to the hearts of many of our fellow citizens. I can assure him that the regulations that we have in place to ensure that ponies are not exported for slaughter or, indeed, that any horses are not exported for immediate slaughter are extremely important to us. We retain them at a very high level of vigilance. Our minimum value system, as everyone knows, has served us extremely well and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Mr. Soames : A large proportion of the work of the Food Safety Directorate, which accounts for about one third of staff resources in the core department, is devoted to the promotion of food safety, including the safe handling of food.
Mr. Griffiths : I wonder whether the Minister would tell us when he last had the rather humble gastronomic experience of eating a sandwich from a store such as Tesco, and whether, when eating it, he was reading the
Column 410Which ? report on the safety of eating such sandwiches, because he will know that one in six are deemed to be dangerous to public health. Will he therefore take steps to ensure that all pre- packed sandwiches have a clear sell-by date on them and that more money is made available for the training of all staff who have to handle and sell sandwiches ?
Mr. Soames : I would hazard a guess that I eat more Tesco sandwiches than the hon. Gentleman or, for that matter, many other hon. Gentlemen. The hon. Gentleman's assertion was fatuous. The standards in the British food industry are probably the highest in any country. Our hygiene training is the envy of the world and all the regulations on food safety in this country render our consumers the best protected, in the safest environment, in any country in Europe.
Mr. Brazier : Following that robust answer, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he agrees that we must resist pressure from the Opposition for yet more regulation ? Surely the British people want a sensible balance to be struck between food safety and a reasonable regulatory burden so that British jobs are not destroyed throughout the food chain.
Mr. Soames : My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The food industry, together with pharmaceuticals, aerospace and a number of others, is one of the best in Great Britain. My hon. Friend is correct. Any additional regulatory burden would do no good. The food industry depends on high standards of hygiene for its great success. Everything that my hon. Friend says is true. We believe that we have exactly the right balance, and we should continue to strike that balance.
Mr. Martyn Jones : In spite of the Minister's reply and his defence of the British food industry, there has been a huge increase in cases of salmonella food poisoning in the past few years. Given that all the evidence that has been given to the Agriculture Select Committee suggests that the Government's slaughter policy has had no effect in preventing that increase in salmonella food poisoning, will he now accept that the £1,048,000 that has been wasted on compensation for slaughtered flocks would have been best spent on educating food handlers in the use of eggs ?
Mr. Soames : No, I do not believe that. The Government policy on all those matters has been driven by our professional independent advisory committees. The salmonella policy is to provide all necessary controls consistent with the need to protect public health.
The hon. Gentleman must understand that what makes food safe is not regulation but high standards and the food industry's determination to provide consumers with wholesome, safe food. That is precisely what they get.
9. Mr. Harry Greenway : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how many equines were slaughtered in the United Kingdom in the past year ; how many of those equines were slaughtered for consumption (a) in the United Kingdom and (b) abroad ; and if she will make a statement.
Data are not kept on the destination of the meat, but, so far as the Department is aware, the vast majority of the meat produced was exported.
Mr. Greenway : Does my hon. Friend agree that if foreigners must eat our horses, they should accept them slaughtered rather than transported alive ? Is not that a much more humane way for horsemeat to be sent abroad ? Does he agree that this country has no tradition of eating horses and that our history, culture and fame are built on the back of horses ? Will he promise that, like me, he will never eat a horse as long as he lives ?
Mr. Soames : I feel that the House should know that I have never, and will never, eat a horse. My hon. Friend is a doughty champion of the interests of horses. Although eating horses is alien to the British people, we must acknowledge that some of our friends within the excellent single market to which we belong have strange habits and wish to eat horses. We do not permit the export of horses for slaughter ; they are slaughtered in this country and exported on the hook. The minimum value system has served this country well and we will continue to stick to it, come what may.
Mr. Flynn : Does the Minister agree that, every year, this country exports 1.8 million live animals, often in conditions of great cruelty ? Can he not begin to stop that cruelty by banning the export of live calves, which are exported from this country at an early age, mainly to Holland, and raised in a process that is banned here ?
Mr. Soames : Even the tortured mind of the Opposition must know the difference between a calf and a horse. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that it is possible for animals to be transported in a humane and decent fashion. We seek to export our welfare standards for animals to the rest of Europe. Whenever we have an opportunity to prosecute those who break the rules, we do so with great vigour.
Mr. Paice : My hon. Friend knows that I am privileged to represent the centre of the British bloodstock industry around Newmarket. Despite the assurances that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald), does he accept that no measures relating to equines for human consumption should be allowed to impinge on the effective running of the stud farming industry, in which Britain is, and always will be, pre- eminent ?
Mr. Soames : My hon. Friend is right. He represents with great distinction the headquarters of the British racing industry--another industry in which Britain leads the world--and is fully aware that the Jockey Club issues licences for the export of horses. Those are perfectly normal licences, issued in the everyday conduct of the business of horses going abroad for sporting purposes, such as polo or racing. We are entirely satisfied with our minimum value system and I am happy to give my hon. Friend the absolute assurance that he seeks.
Mr. Morley : The Minister will be aware that, sadly, New Forest ponies often supply much of the horsemeat trade. However, is he aware that, due to falling prices for horsemeat, there is a worrying new trade in supplying New Forest ponies for laboratory research, particularly to the
Column 412Glasgow university veterinary school ? I understand from the Home Office that some of those ponies arrive there in poor condition due to poor handling and transportation. The Home Office says that it is a matter for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Will the Minister assure the House that action will be taken to ensure that the highest standards are maintained ?
Mr. Soames : With the usual admirable co-operation for which the Government are rightly famed, I have not been told of that case. However, if the hon. Gentleman chooses to make those details available to me, I will look at them. The minimum value system--the system which protects those animals that are most vulnerable, such as the Shetland and other small ponies--really does work. It has stood us in good stead and we will stick to it.
As to the other point, the hon. Gentleman knows that it is perfectly possible to transport animals decently. If they are not transported decently, the matter should be looked into with all the vigour that the law can command.
Mr. Soames : Current activities on food labelling include the consolidation of the existing regulations, the introduction of a standard format for nutrition labelling and discussions on several issues in the European Union.
Dr. Wright : I am grateful to the Minister. Is he aware that there is widespread public support for a clear and effective food labelling scheme which covers not just what is in the food that people eat but how it is produced--in particular, whether it is produced by gene technology, including human genes, and whether it is a cruelty-free product in terms of animal welfare ? Will the Minister introduce a clear scheme of that kind and does he understand that it is his job to introduce not just measures that the food industry will permit but measures that the consumer wants ?
Mr. Soames : The hon. Gentleman is a little wide of the mark. My first job is to protect the interests of the consumer, and we do that with determination and vigour. The hon. Gentleman is a former chairman of a community health council and therefore takes an interest in those matters.
The question of genetically modified organisms is fiendishly complicated and one on which we asked our specialist advisers--the Polkinhorne committee and the Food Advisory Committee--to give us the advice that, in every instance, we have taken. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that clear, concise labelling that gives all the information that people need to make an informed choice is essential and we will ensure that that is just what they get.
Mr. Dickens : Does my hon. Friend agree that we men have to pay a price for splendid food labelling ? Has my hon. Friend shopped at a supermarket recently and had to fight his way past the women who are studying the ingredients of foods and their sell-by dates ?
Column 413perfectly well that the food on offer in our stores is of a very high character and if it is there to be sold it will be sold because it is good, safe, wholesome, nutritious and, I hope, British food.
Mr. Jack : I and my hon. Friend the Scottish Minister with responsibility for agriculture and the environment discussed the problems of the farmed salmon sector with colleagues at the Council of EU Fisheries Ministers in December 1993.
Mr. Macdonald : Now that the Scottish industry has presented to the European Commission the Ernst and Young report, which provides hard evidence of dumping and the unfair subsidies that are given to the Norwegian industry, will the Minister give an undertaking that the Government will make a formal request to the Commission to press for a proper investigation of that evidence before the Scottish industry is absolutely decimated by the dumping ?
Mr. Jack : I can understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about the difficult situation in which Scottish salmon farmers find themselves, but the evidence of dumping in the report presented to the Commission was based on information from as long ago as 1991.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right : there has been a subsequent report from Ernst and Young, dealing with Norwegian state aid. It is now up to the Commission to follow up that matter. However, I think that it is more relevant to follow up the excellent work done by my hon. Friend the Scottish Minister in his meeting with the Norwegians on 18 February when co -operation between Norway and Scotland was discussed.
Mr. Bill Walker : In those discussions, will my hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that Norway hopes to become a member of the European Union ? If it does, it must be made to understand that it cannot be a member of the Union if it is giving unfair subsidies to an industry that is in direct competition with Scottish produce. Should not it be made to understand that now, before it joins ?
Mr. Jack : Having spent 130 hours in the past three weeks in Brussels dealing with enlargement negotiations, I am sure that Norway has no doubt about its obligations should it become a member of the European Union. I can assure my hon. Friend that the matters that lie at the heart of his question have been drawn to the attention of Norway and that the Commission is aware of them. It is important to realise that good co- operation between the Norwegian and Scottish industries is the best way out of the current problems.
Mr. William Ross : During his discussions with other member states, did the hon. Gentleman give consideration to the problems created by salmon cages, whereby increased numbers of parasites affect other fish such as sea trout ? Will he consider the problems related to the salmon farm off the coast at Larne, which is situated in the open sea ?