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House of Commons

Thursday 4 February 1999

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock

PRAYERS

[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FOOD

The Minister was asked--

Madam Speaker: I call Question 1.

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) rose--

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): With permission, Madam Speaker, I will answer Question 1 at 12.30 pm.

Pesticides

2. Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): What reviews he is undertaking of the use of pesticides in agriculture. [67797]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker): The pesticides safety directorate is reviewing the use of 49 pesticide active substances as part of the national review programme of older pesticides. In addition, the directorate is playing its full part in the European review programme, which is examining 83 active substances. Furthermore, several hundred pesticide uses, which have been on provisional approval only for three years, are being considered at my request.

Mr. Shaw: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. What is his Department doing to ensure the provision of information and data about older pesticides? What is he doing about organophosphate pesticides, in the light of growing public concern? What reviews will the pesticides safety directorate conduct in future?

Mr. Rooker: In response to public concern, a major national review of organophosphate pesticides, and compounds with similar actions, is in progress. Human safety is our key concern, and it will not be compromised. In addition, the Committee on the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment, and other Government advisory committees, are considering the scientific evidence on the possible impact of long-term, low-level exposure to organophosphates. We should have the interim report in the spring, and, by the summer, a report that draws some conclusions.

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Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Just as the Minister of State's comments on the centrality of the importance of safety are very welcome, so, too, were his comments in response to an Adjournment debate on a pesticides tax, which I initiated a fortnight ago. Is not one of the most important arguments against such a tax, on which we encourage him to be robust, that it may inhibit innovation and the retirement of older, less acceptable chemicals in favour of more modern equivalents?

Mr. Rooker: The hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct. The idea of a pesticides tax, which is being examined, is seductive, although there are possible down sides, such as greater damage to the environment, the use of older pesticides, which have not been regulated sufficiently, and other misuse. Both my right hon. Friend and I will therefore be making the position quite clear when the appropriate time arises.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the consequences of recent health scares is that people no longer have an unquestioning faith in science? Does he also agree that one of the explanations for the huge increase in demand for organic food over recent years is growing concern about the long-term health and genetic consequences of ingesting pesticides?

Mr. Rooker: My hon. Friend is perfectly right, but let us not exaggerate. Although the Government are doubling aid to organic farmers--we want more to convert--and doubling research effort on organic production, we also check tens of thousands of samples of food every year for pesticide residue, under the control of the pesticides working party. We publish those results. Indeed, in the next tranche of publications, pesticide residues will be published by brand name. The Government's overall policy is aimed at a reduction in the use and volume of pesticides.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I thank the Minister not only for his reassuring words about organophosphates, but for meeting my all-party group, along with ministerial colleagues from other Departments, to discuss the review's progress. Will he look at the issue of warnings to users of pesticides, especially OPs? I am sure that he is aware that, in the 1980s, it was well known that they were extremely dangerous to handle in certain circumstances, yet the trade association, which goes by the extraordinary name of NOAH--the National Office of Animal Health--seems to have been resistant to the provision of any advice on labels. Will he particularly consider the damage to human health as a result of the lack of proper information?

Mr. Rooker: The hon. Gentleman touches on a serious and important point. We are not completely free agents on the matter, simply because the medicines to which he referred particularly come under the Control of Medicines Act 1968. Confidentiality is therefore greater than under other legislation. Since the matter was first raised with me, I have looked at it. The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that there were objections and an appeal some years ago about the nature of warnings on labels to users of pesticides and veterinary medicines, to which he referred, especially concerning people who shear sheep. The Department is actively considering the matter.

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Competitiveness

3. Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): What discussions took place with the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure food production contributed to the DTI's policy document, "Building the Knowledge Driven Economy--Our Competitive Future". [67798]

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): MAFF was consulted by DTI at various stages of the preparation of this White Paper.

Dr. Gibson: In my hon. Friend's discussions with the DTI on the setting up of the Foods Standards Agency, were there ever any disagreements between those who believe in wealth creation, entrepreneurship and innovation, and others who consider food safety and sound scientific advice more important?

Mr. Morley: I can assure my hon. Friend that, in the discussions, there was no disagreement about the need to develop a world-class business and a world-class reputation, and the need for the highest safety standards and quality controls. We have taken those initiatives forward by supporting initiatives from the grocery group to co-ordinate the development of food through all Government Departments and the food chain. One of those initiatives is based on best practice, which includes safety and quality.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): In the discussions that the Minister has just reported to the House, did he tell the Department of Trade and Industry that clause 23 of the proposed Food Standards Agency Bill would contain powers to enable his Ministry, if he were so minded, to levy charges on the entire food industry to cover all the costs of the agency, all the costs of food enforcement and other associated costs? Does he believe that those powers are necessary to secure a competitive food industry?

Mr. Morley: That was a collective decision. There will be consultations on the proposals for the Food Standards Agency, and all interested parties will be able to express their views on that and other issues.

Humanely Reared Meat

4. Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): What discussions he has had with food retailers regarding the sale of humanely reared meat; and if he will make a statement. [67799]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): I regularly meet food retailers and ensure that they are aware of the high welfare standards of UK livestock production.

Mr. Mullin: Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the major retailers are doing enough to promote humanely reared meat? Is he satisfied that they are not merely seeking to exploit the widespread desire for humanely reared meat by charging premium prices? Might retailers and the Government do more to promote humanely reared

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meat by mounting an aggressive advertising campaign designed to demonstrate to a wider audience the extreme cruelties of factory farming?

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is on to a very strong point. I regularly meet the British Retail Consortium and others representing major and other retailers in the UK to discuss animal welfare. In animal welfare issues, I want to enlist the aid of the consumer. For consumers to help, they need a clear labelling scheme so that they can purchase animal welfare-friendly products. I am keen on promoting measures to ensure that.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Does the Minister agree that the standards of animal husbandry and welfare in the United Kingdom are exceptionally high? Although the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) is on to a good point, does the Minister agree that the production of humanely reared meat, rather than extensively farmed meat, is a good selling point and will assist the export of meat from the UK? Will he assure the House that, when we are again able to enter export markets--when that happy day comes--that point will be strongly emphasised?

Mr. Brown: When we get British meat back on to international markets, our strongest selling point will be that British beef is among the safest in the world, and that it is reared to high animal welfare standards. I want to enlist the help of consumers in ensuring that we can get an animal welfare premium in the marketplace for the high livestock rearing standards that we have in this country. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for those objectives.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): While my right hon. Friend is in discussions with the retailers, will he discuss the plight of retailers in Chorley with regard to the proposed fees for small shopkeepers? Will he try to ensure that no tax is levied on small shopkeepers with premises of less than 10,000 sq ft and those belonging to chains of fewer than five shops?

Mr. Brown: The Government are consulting on the funding measures for the extra costs involved in the setting up of the Foods Standards Agency. The proposal, as the House knows, is for a flat rate levy of £90 a year. That is a charge of £1.73 per week. [Interruption.] I hear an hon. Member shout that that would be too much. I ask him what sum he thinks would be affordable.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): The Minister has gained a well-deserved reputation for listening to farmers. When will he do something concrete to help our meat producers? He has already taken away more money than he gave them in December. Why does he not use article 36 of the treaty, which allows him to preclude or restrict imports, on the grounds of the protection of health and life of humans and animals--ample opportunity for him to ensure that our standards of welfare, which he has already praised, are met by our imports, as well as by our own production?

Mr. Brown: As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we do, of course, make use of article 36 where there are grounds for doing so, but I cannot just use it gratuitously as a

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protectionist measure, as the hon. Gentleman implies. The second point to his question is factually inaccurate. The aid package that I announced before Christmas did a substantial amount to help livestock producers, who I freely acknowledge are going through difficult times. The sums of money involved in the agrimonetary compensation under the hill livestock compensatory allowances are well in excess of the new charges, to which I think the hon. Gentleman is referring.


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