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Mr. Letwin: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is another hon. Member about whom we need to know more? In the House, the Agriculture Minister said:

Was he perhaps a signatory to my hon. Friend's early-day motion?

Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend, as usual, makes such a very good and insightful point. However, I did not spot the Minister's name on my early-day motion. As for the Minister's use of the phrase "clamp down", my hon. Friend will have to wait for my mid-term peroration on this part of my speech to hear how that has been handled.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not usual for Ministers to sign early-day motions? His negative remarks on that point should, therefore, not be misconstrued. I also hope that the hon. Gentleman will not go too far down that road, as there are clearly some defects--which I am sure we shall tease out--in his rejected Bill. Nevertheless, I am sure that many people support his objectives and want them to be realised. The more constructive he is, the more likely he is to achieve his aims.

Mr. O'Brien: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and of course I wish to be constructive. However, I have to paint in the background against which I am introducing my Bill. Although I appreciate that we belong to different parties, and that different Back Benchers will hold different views, I am trying to

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understand the mixed messages that have come from the Government on the issue--for which they are responsible and accountable.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien: Let me finish this point first.

In trying to understand the background to the Government's thinking in the context of introducing the Bill, it seemed to me that, in their rush to get Labour Members to put their names to the negative amendment on Wednesday, the Labour Whips have caused mayhem, muddled thinking and great embarrassment to some of their own Back Benchers. This may be a sign of confusion or panic or both. It is certainly a great disappointment to their constituents.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I was certainly not confused when I signed the amendment to his early-day motion and I hope to explain my views later in the debate.

Mr. O'Brien: As ever, I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's brief contribution to the debate. He is completely exonerated from the charge of signing three completely contradictory early-day motions. That was the point that I was elucidating earlier. I promised to give way to the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins).

Mr. Hopkins: A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman glossed over the significant difference between pursuing legitimate changes in EU legislation--with which I would agree--and pursuing changes in national legislation that would not be acceptable within the EU framework. There is a crucial difference which I hope to address in more detail later in the debate.

Mr. O'Brien: I shall address those issues in some detail. Of course they have been disclosed to some degree in the amendment to early-day motion 445. I was aware of them previously, and I have conducted some fairly detailed research. I hope that I will be able to demonstrate that there are other arguments that suggest that the Bill may not face the insurmountable obstacles that the Government think it will face vis-a-vis the EU.

Against that extraordinary and somewhat baffling background, I am pleased to introduce the Bill today. More positively, I am pleased that it has been welcomed by the National Farmers Union, the National Pig Association and the Consumers Association. I should like to express my appreciation and gratitude to the NFU and the NPA for the extensive time, expertise, encouragement and assistance that they have given me in drafting and publicising the Bill.

On Monday, I was presented with a petition in support of honesty in food labelling with more than 3,000 signatures from people from the north-west of England. Hon. Members on both sides of the House represent people in the north-west. The petition forms part of a larger petition of more than 52,000 signatures collected by the NFU and others up and down the country in support of the Bill and the principles contained within it.

There is a widespread feeling that the current position on food labelling is simply not adequate and that the necessary improvements to the labelling of food in Britain

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need the full force of the law behind them. That point was supported by the Consumers Association on behalf of the consumers of this country who have said that, in empowering consumers, the Bill is a step in the right direction.

As I have said, the Bill seeks to ensure that consumers are properly informed about the country of origin and the standards of production of food that is presented for sale. I believe that the Bill can achieve those aims by putting the full force of the law behind honest labelling.

Under the current food labelling regulations, a pork pie labelled "Produced in England" could have been made with Belgian or Brazilian pork. The consumer is unaware of the origin of the ingredients or how the product was made. The justification for the Bill can be summarised in the following words:

Those were the words of the Prime Minister in his speech last month to the NFU. In the same speech he announced that new guidance would be issued on country of origin marking,

    so that the consumer can choose, not be misled, and the farmer gain credit for local-sourced produce and British quality standards.

I agree with those aspirations, but I also believe that consumers can never have 100 per cent. trust in food labelling unless they know that the full force of the law stands behind them, defending their interests.

Mr. McWalter: Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that the advice given by MAFF to trading standards officers on 1 February this year would specifically rule out the idea that somebody could label a pork pie "Produce of Britain" or "Produce of England" if the pork was actually Belgian? The current trading standards regulations would mean that the pork pie would have to be labelled "Belgian pork, finished in Britain" or words to that effect. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is right in his portrayal of the current situation.

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful for that detailed intervention and I shall deal with those points later. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of the operation of the trading standards officers. I do not know whether it is true that the 1 February guidelines, which were an attempt to toughen up the position, will rule out such labelling, and that point goes to the heart of whether we need a statute that gives the force of law. It could be argued that the guidelines are an exhortation--

Mr. Letwin: Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Bill falls foul of European law, that must also apply to the guidelines if they have any real effect?

Mr. O'Brien: As ever, my hon. Friend makes a forensic point. The guidelines would be in contravention of European law only if they had the force of law. If they do not, there is nothing to which the European Union could object because they are only advice. We will want to hear a little more from the Government on that point.

The full force of the law needs to be behind consumers' interests. One of the reasons why the public demand for better food labelling has grown recently is the high profile

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food safety scares, such as the Belgian food scare and the revelations about French farming practices. Those scares have challenged the public faith in food labelling and mere guidelines are not enough to allay those fears.

The Government response will, I believe, be that the labelling guidelines issued on 1 February have the force of law. Let us be clear about those guidelines. They have been issued to trading standards officers to indicate how the Government expect them to discharge their duties with regard to misleading food labels. The guidelines facilitate only the prosecution in court by trading standards officers of, for instance, pork producers who import Dutch pork packed in the UK and sell it as British. In truth, those producers do not just label the pork as British, they label it "Produced in Britain", which is not necessarily caught by the current regulations, as the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) sought to establish.

If the argument that the current regulations are sufficient is advanced by the Government, I do not believe that it will hold water. The preamble to the guidelines is, unlike today's food labels, simple, clear and honest. It states specifically that the guidance is "informal, non-statutory" and that the notes should not be taken as an authoritative statement or interpretation of the law, because, as it continues

Therefore, the guidelines are not even a statutory code like the "Highway Code".

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