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House of Commons

Thursday 6 March 1997

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

PRIVATE BUSINESS

Southampton International Boat Show Bill

Read the Third time, and passed.

Oral Answers to Questions

AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FOOD

Cattle Cull

1. Mr. Rendel: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what estimate he has made of the number of cattle to be slaughtered in Berkshire during the selective cull. [17545]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Tony Baldry): It is not possible to give an estimate of the number of cattle to be culled on a county-by-county basis.

Mr. Rendel: Is the Minister aware that because of the indecision and dithering over the cull, some farmers are now likely to go over quota this year, because they simply do not yet know how many of their cattle are likely to be culled--and even when the numbers are known, the valuations have not yet been done? Will the Minister provide compensation for those who go over quota?

Mr. Baldry: I find that a surprising question, because when the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association asked us to get on with the selective cull, they knew full well the situation as regards milk quota. Farmers have managed to organise milk quota year on year for many years, and if anything, quite recently we tended to be under quota. Of all the many questions that arise from the selective cull, that is not one that I see as a real issue.

Sir John Cope: Does my hon. Friend agree that the total number of cattle to be slaughtered under the cull has been vastly exaggerated, especially by Liberal Democrat spokesmen, and is unlikely to rise above 100,000?

Mr. Baldry: One of the characteristics of the whole bovine spongiform encephalopathy debacle has been a gross over-dramatisation of the situation by all the Opposition parties, not least the Liberal Democrats. In fact, less than 5 per cent. of the national dairy herd is likely to be affected by the selective cull--a maximum of 100,000

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animals. Even that estimate makes assumptions about all the animals that are traceable, and about a full uptake of animals born in the voluntary year. Some of the suggestions that we have heard--from the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), for example--to the effect that one third of the dairy herd will be affected by the cull, are simply ludicrous.

Fishing

2. Mr. Austin Mitchell: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the level of United Kingdom fishing relative to current multi-annual guidance programme targets; and what proposals he has to achieve those targets. [17546]

Mr. Baldry: Definitive figures for United Kingdom performance are under discussion with the Commission. Once the Commission agrees figures for the United Kingdom performance, I expect us to be within a handful of points of our targets for the end of December 1996.

Mr. Mitchell: I am grateful for that totally obscure reply. Will the Minister undertake to argue that the level of cuts likely to be demanded of the British fleet is totally unacceptable? Will he undertake to build a blocking minority against MAGP No. 4, which should not be considered until Europe has accepted our proposals to do something about the quota hoppers who now make up about one fifth of the British fleet? Will he further undertake to reject the Commission's latest proposals, which are dominated by Dutch self-interest in an unacceptable way, especially in the light of the huge Dutch fishing overshoot? Will he undertake to ensure that something is done about industrial fishing, and oppose the proposed days-at-sea limit and the proposed 30 per cent. cut to be imposed on us?

Dr. Godman: Good speech.

Mr. Baldry: It was a good speech--and the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) is even wearing a sober tie.

I do not think that there is much difference between the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and me on the issue. We have made it clear that we will not contemplate any further reduction in the United Kingdom fishing fleet until the issue of quota hoppers is dealt with. What the hon. Gentleman described as my opaque answer meant that we are almost up to our target for MAGP No. 3--we are practically where we should be on that--and we are saying that the United Kingdom does not intend to move forward on No. 4 or to do anything else with it, until the issue of quota hopping is resolved. As the Prime Minister has made clear on several occasions, that is a priority that we seek to achieve at the intergovernmental conference. I hope that everyone on the Opposition Benches will also signal that it is the clear intention of the whole House to ensure that Britain achieves a result on quota hopping at the IGC.

Mr. John Greenway: Do the guidance targets contain anything about the size of lobsters landed off the north-east Yorkshire coast? Is my hon. Friend aware of a proposal to increase the minimum size landed at Filey

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from 85 mm to 87 mm? That does not sound much, but it would decimate what little fishing there is left in Filey. Will my hon. Friend promise to look into that?

Mr. Baldry: That is a bit broad for a question on decommissioning, but I shall certainly look into the issue of lobsters in Filey and, if necessary, I would more than welcome a visit to my hon. Friend's constituency.

Food Labelling

3. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what steps his Department is taking to ensure that food labelling is comprehensible to the public. [17547]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Angela Browning): The law requires that mandatory information on food labels should be easy to understand and that all other information should be true and not misleading. We regularly consult consumer and other organisations and we commission surveys to identify where label information could be improved.

Mr. Hughes: I accept what the Minister says about consulting regularly. Will she look at the report produced last week by the National Consumer Council, which agrees with my view that most food labelling is twaddle, merely giving a list of chemicals, or Latin, or words that nobody understands? There is regulation for descriptions of nutrition--a claim that a food is low fat, for example, has to be regulated--but anybody can put "gives you a healthy diet" on a product, because health matters are not regulated. Can we start again and produce food labels that ordinary people such as me can understand when we go to Tesco?

Mrs. Browning: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall study the report with great care. The Food Advisory Committee is also looking at nutritional and health claims, particularly the latter. The issue can be confusing. The Ministry produces some literature to guide people through it. I agree that labelling must be clear and accurate.

Sir Cranley Onslow: Is my hon. Friend satisfied that everything possible is being done at national and European level to provide adequate warning for those susceptible to allergies, such as that caused by peanuts, that can have fatal consequences?

Mrs. Browning: I assure my hon. Friend that we have pressed the European Commission to propose changes to labelling to help those who suffer from peanut allergies and similar conditions. I am also working on a programme for this year to put more information into the public domain, particularly for food processors. Many people find that there is more labelling for products that obviously contain nuts, but the processed nut is often not immediately obvious. That is the potential danger for people with such allergies.

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Organic Products

4. Mr. Tony Banks: To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what his Department is doing to encourage the production and marketing of organic products. [17548]

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Mr. Tim Boswell): As well as aid for conversion to organic production, we provide free advisory services and fund the United Kingdom register of organic food standards, together with substantial organic research and development programmes and around £1 million of marketing grants to date to a range of organic interests.

Mr. Banks: The Minister's reply is complacent. Instead of allowing people to be poisoned with stinking meat and pesticides, why do we not do more to encourage the growth of organic products? Is the Minister aware that 70 per cent. of the organic food eaten in this country is imported? We are at the bottom of the European Union league on the organic aid scheme, spending less than half the European Union average. What do the Government have against organic food? Why are they so prejudiced against it? Are they prepared to let people be poisoned by rotten stinking food when they could have healthy organic food?

Mr. Boswell: It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman spoils a good case with which I have some sympathy with hyperbole with which I have no sympathy. He cannot rightly assert that the food offered in this country, organic or otherwise, is rotten and stinking. If it were, it would not be permitted. The Government wish to encourage the production, the marketing and the consumption of organic food for those who want it. To that end, in addition to the measures that I referred to a moment ago, I have participated in a seminar held by our market task force on encouraging greater awareness of the market possibilities--an important incentive for the organic sector.

Mr. Mark Robinson: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the marketing of British produce, organic and otherwise, that is extremely important and which the Ministry does support and should support? On organic produce, does he also agree that it is up to consumers to decide what they want to buy and eat?

Mr. Boswell: I could not agree more. I can tell my hon. Friend that within the sector challenge scheme, which has been set up recently, two of the strong contenders going forward for final consideration are for organic marketing aid improvement schemes.

Mr. William Ross: Does the Minister recall that for at least the first half of this century most food was produced with a low level of artificial fertilisers and practically no sprays and that the farming community, encouraged by Governments of all shades, went over to high production through the use of modern fertilisers? Will the Minister give an assurance that, if we are to move back to organic food production, not only profit levels but food production levels will be maintained in this nation?

Mr. Boswell: The hon. Gentleman makes some fair points. I just about remember the first half of this century

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when I was a lad, when there was a much lower level of inputs in farm production. The use of science to continue to produce safe food but to a greater intensity has expanded production. More extensive use of the organic sector would curtail production and we need to have all those factors in mind. The relevant points are to offer consumers choice and opportunity so that they can decide what they wish to consume, and ideally, that the British farmer should be able to produce it for them.


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