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Mr. Brown: My understanding is that the industrial studies on dioxins are already in the public domain, but if they are held by my Department and are not in the public domain, I am happy to put them there. Our approach is one of openness. We intend to provide information promptly and we intend to hold others to their obligations. The correct mechanisms for doing that are through the European Union and the Commission in this case. The Commission has acted properly.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): Does the Minister accept that in recent years UK farmers have invested considerable sums in traceability and farm assurance schemes? Other member states have not. It is essential to press for the maximum amount of labelling and information partly so that consumers have the fullest possible information, but also so that UK farmers can be properly rewarded for the investment that they have made in full traceability and farm assurance.

Mr. Brown: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am a strong supporter of the farm assured schemes. Traceability is in the interests of producers and consumers. It behoves us all, regardless of the politics of the situation, to get behind the Meat and Livestock Commission and its farm assured schemes, particularly on livestock. If people want to be certain that they are not consuming contaminated products during the current scare, they should look for the assured British label.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): There is of course an international trade in animal feedstuffs and the former Minister for Agriculture presided over the export of

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contaminated feed to France. Has any Belgian contaminated feedstuff been imported into the United Kingdom, or indeed exported to any other EU country?

Mr. Brown: We understand that there have been exports to other European countries. The Belgian authorities have now confirmed that none of the contaminated feed has been exported to the United Kingdom. There have been imports of some Belgian feedstuffs, but because of their value, we believe that they could not have been contaminated. However, I am ensuring that that is thoroughly checked.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Further to the highly pertinent question from the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), and given what the Minister described as his disappointment at the scandal, will he now tell the House whether he is satisfied, as a Minister accountable to the House, that there are sufficient penal sanctions available to apply to the Belgian Government and others who might in future be tempted to conduct themselves with such cavalier disregard for their responsibilities?

Mr. Brown: I do think that it was scandalous that the information was not provided at the appropriate time and I have no fear of saying so. I am content for the Commission to deal with that aspect of the matter. My first concern is the protection of the public in this country and we have taken robust steps to ensure their protection. As the crisis in Belgium unravels, the costs will become substantial. I would not want to forecast where it will end up, but surely the way forward for the European Union is to put right the problem of contaminated feedstuffs in Belgium and to make sure that the safeguards there are sufficiently robust to ensure that it cannot happen again.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I was alarmed to hear the Minister say a moment or two ago that the Department knew about the crisis on 28 May, but that he heard about it during casual conversation with Commissioner Fischler on 30 May. Is it normal that the Department keeps matters of huge importance secret for two days before reacting? In that context, will he tell the House whether he has 100 per cent. confidence in the very large quantity of chicken meat and dried egg imported from Thailand? If so, how does he come to have such confidence?

Mr. Brown: Because the European Union carries out inspections of producers in Thailand. I believe that my Department was represented on the last mission that went to inspect. As for the point about when Ministers were told, the Minister of State was told on 28 May, which was a Friday. I was told on 30 May, which was a Sunday. During my meeting with Commissioner Fischler we discussed a range of issues. He informed me not that the issue was in the public domain--I knew that--but of its details. He was good enough to talk me through precisely what he perceived the problem to be and how the Commission was able to proceed. With that knowledge, our officials could make sure that we set in hand the necessary safeguards here--or at least some of them--in advance of the Commission taking action.

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Points of Order

5.13 pm

Mr. David Faber (Westbury): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance, having given Madam Speaker prior notice of what I sought to raise. I have been involved in correspondence with the Secretary of State for Health for a number of months concerning the closure of a ward in my constituency. The last occasion on which I wrote to him was 23 March--11 weeks ago--since when I have had no acknowledgement and no answer to my letter, in spite of tabling written questions subsequently. Furthermore, I now understand that the Secretary of State's Parliamentary Private Secretary, in her role as secretary of the GMB group in the House, met a group of my constituents representing the GMB without informing me of that fact.

Do you share my disappointment at the lack of courtesy to me and my constituents in that the Parliamentary Private Secretary apparently went behind my back to meet my constituents to discuss a subject on which, after11 weeks, I have still not had a reply from the Secretary of State?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): The hon. Gentleman will know that these are not strictly matters for the occupant of the Chair. All Members of Parliament appreciate that there is no harm in there being more, rather than less, communication when colleagues are involved in matters in one another's constituencies. It is customary for Ministers to try to see Members of Parliament who have particular problems in their constituencies, and I am sure that what the hon. Gentleman has said will have been heard by Ministers.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): On a separate, but somewhat related, point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Having tabled questions to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and to the Department of Trade and Industry on the last day before Whitsun for answer today, I was disappointed to receive a reply today saying that those questions will be responded to by Ministers "shortly". As nearly two weeks have elapsed since the questions were tabled, we must ask what Ministers have been doing in that time, and whether it is appropriate that they cannot respond promptly when they have been given proper notice.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Some of us can recall occasions when replies have been either extraordinarily prompt or extraordinarily delayed--it does happen. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the occupant of the Chair cannot determine these things, but his point will have been heard by Ministers.

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Animal Welfare (Prohibition of Imports)

5.16 pm

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): I beg to move,

The purpose of the Bill--which has an added relevance, given the statement that the House has just heard--is straightforward. Over the years, at the behest of constituents and consumers, the UK has been continuously improving animal welfare standards. Sadly, such improvements have not been matched in other EU member states or in other countries generally. Meat products are increasingly being imported from countries without such high animal welfare standards, undermining British agriculture. Clearly, this is crazy.

The Bill has broad support across the House. It has the support of a number of former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Ministers, those representing rural constituencies and Members from both sides of the House who are known to take a leading interest in animal welfare issues. It is a Bill on which consumers, farmers and those concerned with animal welfare can unite.

British agriculture is suffering its worst crisis for 60 years, with falling farm incomes and rising debts. There are reports of farmers having to sell healthy calves for just 29p each--less than the price of a pint of milk. There are fears that a substantial proportion of pig farmers may be driven out of production because of their losses. The average age of farmers in the UK is estimated to be 58. One wonders what the prospects are for UK farming if that continues. Who will take over, and what will happen to our rural communities?

As Members who were in the House at the time will recall, the UK--at the behest of hundreds of constituents--raised its standards for meat production in pig farming, banning the use of stalls and tethers from 1 January this year. Elsewhere in the EU, the ban on the use of tethers is not due to come into effect until 2005, and there is no ban at present on the use of stalls.

As the ban came into effect in the UK after a seven-year phase-out, the cost to the producer amounted to a margin reduction of about £18 per sow, per year, and a reduction of 85p per pig produced per year. Pig farmers have estimated that the costs of the enhanced animal welfare standards here add a further £4.50 to the production costs of each pig--something that has not been borne elsewhere in the EU or the world.

It is not only in pig production that we have higher welfare standards. We have higher standards for veal calves in the United Kingdom, and the European Union generally has higher standards on hormones in beef and on antibiotics than elsewhere in the world. The British Pig Association estimates that the additional investment cost to the UK pig industry of the enhanced animal welfare standards has been about £220 million, and that the operating cost for the slaughter of each pig has increased by £1.50. We have extra costs, which our competitors do not have to meet, for slaughter as well as for enhanced animal welfare standards.

In evidence to the Agriculture Committee, the British Pig Association said:

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    and therefore their products, have achieved distinct superiority over those in other EU or third countries. The industry is entitled to believe that it should receive just recognition of these achievements and merit appropriate reward in the market place."

Sadly, that is not happening. The association went on to say:

    "Because multiple retailers and caterers appear not to secure financial advantage from the higher UK specification they appear to be, to varying degrees . . . adopting double standards: insisting on a high UK specification while accepting imports that do not meet those standards."

In other words, retailers and supermarkets are increasing their imports of pigmeat and other meat products from elsewhere that do not come up to the high UK welfare standards.

It is not only pig producers and farmers who say that. The British Veterinary Society accused retailers of ignoring welfare, traceability and food safety standards in a quest for cheaper meat and fatter profits. The BVS commented that increasing quantities of cheap pigmeat are being brought in from Europe and labelled as "packaged in Britain", without conforming to the conditions that have been enforced on British farms.

The BVS is concerned that pigmeat is derived from pigs that have been treated with medicines that cannot be used legally in the UK: for example, thallium, a preservative in vaccines. It gave many examples of pigs produced elsewhere in the European Union and in countries such as Poland not conforming to standards that would be accepted here.

The president of the BVS said:

Consumers are entitled to have products on the supermarket shelf clearly labelled and UK farmers are entitled to get the benefits of the investment that they have made in full traceability and better-quality farm assurance.

That view is supported unanimously by the Agriculture Committee, whose report said:

the EC directive relating to stalls and tethers. It continued:

    "We regret the fact that the EU standards have been allowed to lag so far behind the UK's and want to see any future changes in animal welfare legislation imposed and implemented on a uniform basis throughout the EU."

The report said:

    "We also consider that the retailers and manufacturers should support government efforts to provide for higher standards of animal welfare by not directing their purchases to cheaper producers elsewhere and by insisting that European suppliers maintain the same standards . . .

    The Government should also amend the procurement contracts of Ministries, Departments and other public bodies to ensure that all pigmeat is sourced to welfare standards no lower than the UK specification."

That view is supported by UK farmers. The British Pig Association, not unreasonably, said:

    "We believe that government could do more to ensure that their own purchasing departments (MoD etc) and departments that have influence over other public purchasing agencies"--

such as local authorities--

    "source product up to the UK's high standards."

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    The association continued:

    "In the case of pigmeat, government should set out guidelines and exert greater influence on securing pork, bacon and other pigmeat products that comply with the high UK standards of quality assurance, traceability, animal welfare and food safety."

Those are points that the recent Belgian scare has made only too well.

It is not only pig farmers who should be entitled to feel the benefits of investment in high welfare standards. We should also be investigating how the import of meat and meat products produced by methods illegal in the UK can be stopped for beef, poultry and eggs. The Bill is a proportionate measure and I hope that it will have the full support of every hon. Member. I also hope that it will unite consumers, farmers and those concerned about animal welfare.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nominationof Select Committees at commencement of public business):--

The House divided: Ayes 173, Noes 0.

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