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Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. Thank you. I am closing the questions on the statement now.


Warm Homes and Energy Conservation

(Fifteen Year Programme)

Mrs. Linda Gilroy, supported by Mr. David Chaytor, Mr. Cynog Dafis, Mr. Alan Simpson, Mr. Peter Temple-Morris, Mr. Michael Colvin, Mr. Matthew Taylor, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Angela Smith, Maria Eagle, Ms Joan Walley and Ms Linda Perham, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to draw up and facilitate the carrying out, over a period of 15 years,of a programme of action to provide at least 500,000 households per year with a comprehensive package of home insulation and other energy efficiency improvements; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon 6 February 1998, and to be printed [Bill 108].

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Labelling of Products

4.30 pm

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I beg to move,

My Bill is topical on the day when we are discussing the setting up of a Food Standards Agency.

Today, we live in economies dominated by big businesses and giant corporations. Many of those companies have turnovers far in excess of the gross national product of many countries. The ability to influence those companies' decisions often seems to be beyond the power of ordinary people or, indeed, Governments, whether acting alone or together. Decisions to locate, to exploit the natural environment or its resources, to produce in a particular way or on how to treat a work force are often made by companies whose paramount aim is the need to make a profit.

At a national level, we see companies operating in ways that may not be beneficial to the local people. Such unbridled powers have often led people, locally, nationally and internationally, to feel defenceless and frustrated as they see decisions taken that they believe to be wrong but feel that they are unable to stop.

My Bill aims to help to address that problem by tapping the relatively under-used power of the consumer. The potential of consumer power to influence the decisions of big business is huge. What business could or would produce goods or services that it ultimately could not sell? As consumers, we make choices in our shops, offices and superstores that will directly influence those companies' decisions. We can influence them to take decisions to produce goods, grow crops or rear animals in ways that are ethically acceptable. They would not be able to make such decisions in a moral vacuum.

People can change the world without leaving the high street. We have a tool at our disposal through which we can directly influence events, not only locally or nationally, but globally. Every time people go shopping, they vote. They could vote for decent standards at work, for healthy foods with humane farming methods, for a better environment, for fair trade and for many other worthwhile objectives. The consumer is increasingly realising his power. We have seen the power that the consumer can wield in the not-too-distant past, with the consumer boycotts that were operated and helped to bring about the end of apartheid.

Those boycotts could be a small taste of the consumer power that could be unleashed. Television and newspaper pictures increasingly force us to confront the harsh realities of life. We see images of young children in the third world making cheap goods in appalling conditions, mainly for the west. We see companies exploiting the natural environment, with no regard for the future. We see the cruelty that is often involved in the rearing or transporting of animals. Those pictures come right into our homes, and it is here at home that we can begin to change things.

People's consciences are pricked by such images, and they want to take action to help to stop them, but they often wonder how. My Bill would give the consumer increased power to impose minimum acceptable standards on those practices through the decisions he makes.

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However, my Bill recognises that, to take such decisions, consumers need information about the goods or services they are buying. Information given on labels at present is generally inadequate, and does not usually give people the opportunity to make a moral or ethical choice in their purchasing. More information to enable them to do so must be included on all labels and in all labelling.

In drawing up my Bill, I recognise that many companies act in ways that would command public support. Many take care of the environment, support fair trade and try to promote the humane treatment of animals and to improve working conditions. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a freedom food initiative. As a Co-operative party member with one share in the Co-op, I am proud of the Co-operative stores' honest labelling campaign, and of the ethical investment policy pursued by the Co-operative bank.

While promoting the Bill, I have discovered that many other companies, such as B and Q, seem to have good practices. Charities such as Save the Children, the United Nations Children's Fund and Christian Aid have pointed out that we can change things by our purchasing, as have Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. Perhaps Oxfam has done most to highlight some of the things that we see around us.

My Bill would build on the work being done by those non-governmental organisations by bringing legislative force behind what are at the moment voluntary codes or simply the result of some companies' good business practice. It is essential for us to acknowledge, as my Bill does, that voluntary codes or good practice are no longer sufficient. The force of law is needed, with legislation passed by Parliament.

My Bill would ensure that labels made clear to consumers the key facts about the production of goods or services. For example, it would be clear to all consumers the conditions under which animals that provided the meat or other related products on sale in shops or superstores had been kept. Were they produced in factory forms or allowed to roam free? How were they slaughtered? It is not too much to ask that that information is provided in all places where meat is bought or consumed.

When purchasing clothes or other products, we should know the answers to the following questions. What were the conditions of the workers who produced them? Were they paid a reasonable wage? Were the goods produced by child labour? Were they produced by home or outworkers? Goods that may be cheap in the shops for us may have been paid for by the misery and exploitation of others. Often it is impossible from the labels to tell exactly how things have been produced; that information needs to be provided.

Similarly, we may ask ourselves, how have crops been grown? What chemicals have been used in their growing? Have they been genetically modified? What vitamins or additives have been included? Labels often fail to give that information in a way that is understandable and easily available.

It is often said that people would be unwilling to pay for the increased prices that may result from measures such as those that the Bill would introduce. I reject that argument, because I believe that the majority of consumers, if given the choice and the information, would shop in a morally acceptable way and make that choice to do their bit to improve the conditions of people in the United Kingdom and throughout the world.

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We have shown by our practice in the House of Commons that we believe that such pressure can work, with the adoption of a fair trade coffee in our Tea Rooms. The same principle might be followed on a range of products. Recent press reports, and what we heard earlier about the Food Standards Agency, show that the Government seem to be thinking along similar lines.

My Bill would mean that, increasingly, people could act as green consumers. When buying furniture made from wood, is it possible to tell whether that wood came from sustainable forests? What is the environmental record of the company responsible for those products?

My Bill will give people the power to influence for the good the policies of major companies. If we do not like the way that goods have been produced, we can refuse to buy them. We shall have the power in our pockets, rather than the multinationals having us in theirs. However, we can have that power only if the consumer has information--the information that my Bill would require to be provided by the labelling of goods process.

My Bill would also ensure that any claims made on a label were effectively monitored and policed. It would ensure that there was a Government sign to show that the claims made on a label were accurate and true. Stores selling these goods, or businesses offering these services, would have to ensure that all this information was easily available to consumers. Displays in stores should direct people towards ethically produced goods instead of shoppers having to hunt around for them.

We need to root out bad practices. We have the power to do that, but without the necessary information it is very hard to make ethical choices. My Bill sets out to provide consumers with the information they need to exercise that power and to be that force.

4.39 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Ten-minute Bills afford the House the traditional opportunity for the eccentric and the bizarre; and we are used to that, and fairly tolerant of it. However, the opportunity is being used these days not just for the politically correct but--it gives me some encouragement to hear it--for examples of unreconstructed, old-style, old Labour, socialist bias against the capitalist process, and against large employers and profit makers. That is not a problem for me: it is a problem for the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) and his party.

Listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, I was struck by the rather charming naivety of the Bill that he is offering us, and by its utter and total impracticality. I shall leave to one side all the usual arguments about the nanny state, elements of which were paraded throughout what the hon. Gentleman said. I shall also leave aside the patronising nature of his arguments. He seemed to assume that the consumer is a dumb animal being led by the nose by wicked multinational companies, completely unable to make his own decisions or choices or to seek his own information.

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To keep my remarks as brief as possible, I will concentrate just on the practicalities--

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