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12.20 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker): This has been an interesting and a pleasant debate in which hon. Members from both sides of the House have spoken about an industry that makes a great contribution to British food supplies. I suspect that many of us have been associated with the industry at some time. Although I did not make enough money to buy a house, when I was about19 and an industrial engineering apprentice in central Birmingham, I spent a fortnight's holiday fruit picking in Scotland. It was a totally different life. So, although I was not treated as a foreigner, I am familiar with the joys and the difficulties of fruit picking.

It is clearly impossible for me to respond to many of the points raised in the debate, so I shall pick and choose. I promise to write to hon. Members regarding any points of substance that I do not cover. I had hoped to respond more positively to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), who mentioned Brogdale, as I was fairly convinced that I would be able to announce a decision. However, although one sees the papers and agrees the decision, such matters take a while to progress through the Ministry. We must protect public funds and MAFF must obtain a planning gain. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that will be done positively, and we hope to make an announcement as quickly as possible.

I shall not repeat the points raised by the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) in introducing this subject. I congratulate him on obtaining this debate about a very important industry that is worth almost £2 billion at farm gate level. Every hon. Member who has spoken has extolled the virtues of the industry and its excellent, wholesome and diverse produce. Although the Government do not tell people what to eat, we urge them to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables--and preferably those grown in Britain. I suspect that the common market policemen will criticise me for that remark.

I congratulate the National Farmers Union and retailers on initiating the assured produce scheme, in which 70 per cent. of British producers and retailers participate. MAFF is not involved in the scheme as the Government do not necessarily play a part in those sorts of relationships. It is as plain as a pikestaff that home-grown British fruit and vegetables are fresher than imports. However, hon. Members referred to national cycles as a result of supermarket distribution throughout the country and we know that people want to buy exotic fruits and vegetables that we cannot grow in Britain.

There is dynamism in the industry and we applaud grower ingenuity. We are world leaders in horticulture and are responsible for much ground-breaking technology. Tasty small British strawberries can be grown almost the whole year round as a result of research and development that is funded by MAFF and the industry. People soon realise that the big imported strawberries do not have a taste--I just wish that they would do so sooner.

I reject the attacks upon my noble Friend Lord Donoughue. It is nonsense to claim that he does not speak in support of British produce when he did so just the other day. My noble Friend certainly gets around the country. It may surprise Opposition Members to learn that, because the Labour party has more trouble winning votes in the other place, the whipping regime in the House of Lords

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is much more severe than in this place. Despite that, however, my noble Friend is doing a good job on behalf of the industry.

I do not deal with horticultural issues on a daily basis, but I was astonished to learn last November that I was the first serving MAFF Minister to visit Spitalfields market since its relocation to Waltham Forest in 1991. It is a major market which distributes both imported and home-grown produce throughout the country. It has a turnover of £400 million a year and is a major distributor of food to the catering industry--a particular growth area to which many hon. Members referred.

I hope that I have applauded the assured produce scheme sufficiently. Although some hon. Members have mentioned the minimum wage's impact on the industry, more hon. Members have referred to the possibility of a pesticide tax. That is a very important issue. Page 13 of last week's edition of Farming Weekly carries a story about my right hon. Friend's address to the Soil Association conference. It states:

Between 1986 and 1996, the tonnage of pesticides used in this country was reduced by 15 per cent. We have a ruthless regime for the control, monitoring and surveillance of pesticide use in Britain. The working party on pesticides--which is somewhat more than a working party; it is not a casual ad hoc arrangement--took 1,000 samples of fruit and vegetables from around the country, imports and exports, to check the level of pesticides. The quantities vary each year. It conducted tens of thousands of tests on the produce, checking for pesticide residue. It found no residue in 70 per cent. of the samples and detected minimal residue levels in about 30 per cent. Its discovery that less than 1 per cent. of samples contained residue above the minimum level resulted from its targeting of particularly dodgy areas. However, all samples were well within safety limits.

The Government recognise concern about the impact of a tax, especially on the economic competitiveness of the agriculture industry. I shall share with the House the contents of a paper from the Agricultural Development Advisory Service which recently came across my desk--and which will no doubt be published in due course--outlining a qualitative assessment of the impact of a pesticide tax. It said that pesticide taxation will not necessarily reduce pesticide usage or offer environmental benefits. With more focus on cost, farmers will use the older, cheaper and often less environmentally friendly products, and there might be an increase in the use of less well evaluated pesticide mixtures.

According to the paper, the repeated use of a narrow range of cheaper products would increase the risk of pesticide resistance. Pesticide taxation would stimulate greater demand for research into application techniques. Nitrate leaching would increase and farmers might adopt weed control strategies that are more dependent on cultural methods, many of which are more damaging to wildlife than herbicide use.

The introduction of a pesticide tax may reduce sea bed quality, and spillages and exposure to treated seeds will lead to increased potential damage to wildlife, including farmland birds. A pesticide tax would increase the amount of pesticides imported for own use and, as a consequence,

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larger quantities of pesticides would be stored on farms, possibly in sub-standard conditions. Reduced profitability would decrease the amount of investment in new machinery, which would be beneficial to the operating environment.

I make no apology for relating a one-sided view of the argument. I make it absolutely clear that MAFF Ministers are fully seized of the upside and the downside of a pesticide tax. It may sound superficially attractive as a way of reducing pesticide use, but, perversely, it may have the opposite effect. Such a tax may lead to the use of not only more, but more damaging, pesticides. We are not prepared to tolerate that threat to the safety of the food chain.

In the minute remaining, I shall turn to research and development. We spend what might be alleged to be a disproportionate amount of MAFF's research and development budget on horticulture, and we make no apologies for that. By and large, the industry receives no support from common market subsidies. We are therefore very pleased to contribute between £11 million and £17 million--depending on whether we add in the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council money--and we hope to continue that funding.

I regret the changes that we were forced to make to educational grants, but that is a matter for the Department for Education and Employment to address, given the constraints of the comprehensive spending review. I regret also that I have not been able to respond to all the points raised in the debate.

20 Jan 1999 : Column 866

Road Deaths (Sentencing)

12.30 pm

Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate): I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise an important issue that attracts widespread concern from Members in all parties. I intend to speak for 10 minutes at most, to enable colleagues to contribute to the debate before the Minister has an opportunity to respond.

On 12 January 1998, a 16-year-old constituent of mine, Livia Galli-Atkinson, left home at five to seven in the evening to walk the 800 yards to attend her regular ballet class at the Boden Studios in Enfield. On Windmill hill, Livia was hit by a Mercedes car that mounted the pavement, struck a signpost and injured another woman pedestrian. Half an hour later, Livia died.

Last March, Livia's mother wrote in The Sunday Times of her and her family's feelings. She said:

Livia's parents, Giulietta and George, and her sister Bianca have shown great dignity, courage and determination during the past 12 months. Their cause has captured the imagination of the people of Enfield and beyond. In November 1998, the driver of the Mercedes was found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving. His sentence consisted of a £2,000 fine and a five-year driving ban.

Today's short debate focuses on the sentences given in such cases. I draw the attention of the House to the cross-party early-day motion 201. The motion contrasts the average penalty of 33.7 months in cases of causing death by dangerous driving with the average penalty of 62 months in manslaughter cases.

Many important issues are raised by my constituents' case. Many of them are matters for the Home Office and others are the concern of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Today, I want to concentrate on sentencing.

Road Peace is the national charity which campaigns for justice for those who have lost their lives in road cases and for their bereaved families. Road Peace has launched the campaign for justice for road traffic victims and has been instrumental in forming an all-party parliamentary group on that subject. Its concern, and mine, is that the pattern of sentencing across the country is too lenient.

The number of prosecutions following road deaths has fallen since the implementation of the Road Traffic Act 1991. In 1996, the last year for which I have figures, 3,598 people were killed on the roads. In 382 of those cases, someone was charged with causing death by dangerous driving, and 245 of those people were convicted.

It is clear from my research that the Crown Prosecution Service demonstrates a marked reluctance even to use the charge of causing death by dangerous driving. Incredibly, for cases involving the lesser charge--driving without due care and attention--no statistics are kept for the number of drivers who kill or cause serious injury. That is unacceptable. I ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for

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Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), to consider whether we can provide statistics that make that distinction, so that we know of cases involving death or serious injury. I ask also that the Government consider publishing those statistics more frequently.

The maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving is 10 years' imprisonment and a mandatory disqualification from driving, yet sentences tend to be considerably more lenient. Very few convictions carry a sentence of more than two years in prison, let alone anything close to 10 years. In one in three cases, including the case of Livia, the driver is not disqualified, despite the existence of that provision. That pattern of leniency brings the legal system into grave disrepute and undermines public confidence in the courts. How can we expect drivers to take those issues seriously if the courts and the law appear not to do so?

I support the long-standing recommendation of the North committee that the courts should have the power to take account of the consequences of a road traffic offence when sentencing. Indeed, I would go further and say that we should require the courts to do so. It is incredible that the courts ignore death when it is a consequence in such cases.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister inform the House what progress has been made in reviewing the Road Traffic Act 1988? That issue was raised in an Adjournment debate last May by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt). I am aware that these matters are dealt with by the DETR but clearly they have great significance for today's debate. In last May's debate, my hon. Friend said that

In that context, surely it is not only drivers' responsibility to drive carefully but the law's responsibility to provide suitable deterrents to prevent the tragic loss of life that I have described today.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 provides a possible method for dealing with these important issues. The Act established a sentencing advisory panel, which will be empowered to issue guidelines to the courts with the aim of promoting consistency of good practice across the country.

Will the Minister today at least consider referring the matter of road deaths to the sentencing advisory panel? If he is able to do so, today or shortly, will he urge the panel to consult widely in reviewing the sentencing guidelines in cases of road death and, in particular, to consult the bereaved families and friends and reputable organisations working in the field, most notably Road Peace? In referring the matter to the panel, the Government would send a powerful signal that the Home Office is listening to public concerns expressed in the House and is ready to act on them.

Giulietta, George and Bianca Galli-Atkinson are here today listening to the debate. Earlier, I joined them and colleagues from other parties to deliver a letter and petition to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in Downing street. It is now one year and one hour since Livia Galli-Atkinson was buried. Today's debate is dedicated to her memory and the memory of the thousands of others who have lost their lives and their bereaved families. I hope that it will provide an opportunity for the House to send a clear, powerful

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message to the courts that leniency in road death cases is unacceptable and the time is right for clear, tough sentencing guidelines. None of that will bring Livia back, but I hope that it will mean that she did not die in vain.

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