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Sir Nicholas Lyell: I have been noticing with great pleasure that the Minister has been nodding assent to my hon. Friend's recent remarks in his carefully worded speech. Does he agree that it is important that the

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Government allow the Bill to proceed to Committee and that that should not be put off by arguments that it might be challenged on the ground that it would constitute measures equivalent to quantitative restrictions on imports? That is far from clear and there is every reason to think that the Bill could be put into a form that would comply with EU law, even if it does not already.

Mr. O'Brien: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend. It is my fervent hope, on behalf of the consumers and producers of this country, that the Bill will be allowed into Committee. I do not hide the fact that I am a single Member of Parliament and brand new to this place and, among everything else that goes on, it has been hard work to get the Bill to this point. I would welcome the chance to have it considered in Committee, where there are more resources at the disposal of the parliamentary process, to hone it and to focus on the important issues, such as those raised by my right hon. and learned Friend. I hope that the Government will see fit, at this eleventh hour, to nod assent and, subject to the will of the House, allow the Bill to go to Committee.

Mr. McWalter: Is the hon. Gentleman confirming that if the Bill can be made European compliant by a series of steps, he will take those steps to amend it in Committee, in so far as he can, so that when it returns to the House, the European objection cannot be made against it?

Mr. O'Brien: It is incumbent on us to seek to make any law passed by the House European compliant. My point is that the proposals are not necessarily in contravention of European law, although they bear examination. However, we should not lose sight of the principles that we are trying to establish of simple, clear and honest labelling of country of origin and production standards. The latter point raises the compliance issues, and I shall deal with that in more detail.

In addition to what the Minister of Agriculture said on 28 October last year, when he used the phrase "clamp down", on 1 February this year he said:

How does a Minister clamp down on or stamp out something other than by the force of law? The Bill would fulfil those commitments, by ensuring compliance through legislation rather than relying on voluntary guidelines, codes of practice or mere regulations.

Mr. Letwin: I saw the Minister shake her head earlier. As my hon. Friend has had the chance to talk to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), the former Attorney-General, does he agree that if the Minister of Agriculture intended to clamp down on and stamp out those practices and he sought to achieve that by guidance, he would be presumptively doing whatever the Bill is trying to do effectively, and if the Bill is in contravention of European law, the Minister's actions are so too?

Mr. O'Brien: As ever, my hon. Friend makes a forensic intervention, and I believe that I understood it and that it contains a serious point. [Interruption.] I would expect Labour Members to laugh a little, out of embarrassment. However, my hon. Friend has made a valid comparison.

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The law exists to be properly argued both by precedent and by measure against statute or code. I am a former practising lawyer, although nobody would want to take advice from me because I have not engaged in the law for the past 10 years. I do not want to make a cheap point, but there is a cultural difference between the legal approach and thinking of this country, with its law of precedent culture, and those of continental Europe, with its Roman codification law.

We negotiate and arrive at a concluded position in law, to which we then hold. I know from many years of business experience in all countries of Europe that European legal culture consists also of negotiating and arriving at a concluded agreement, but as circumstances change and things go wrong, that agreement becomes, in effect, a statement of what was agreed on the day, but everything is still negotiable. My hon. Friend's point, which I have developed, is therefore important and ought to be given the serious consideration that it deserves.

The second limb of the Bill provides for the labelling of production standards for the food's raw materials. Countless surveys and much market testing reveal that after the BSE crisis and the more recent Belgian food scare, and following the strenuous efforts by producers, retailers and UK Governments of both colours, British consumers believe, rightly, that their benchmark today is the production standards that are required and applied in this country. However, well-publicised stories of misleading food labelling mean that consumers cannot be sure that the food that they buy is not from a country with inferior production, hygiene and animal welfare standards and that has led to a collapse in the public's faith and trust in food labelling. Clause 3 therefore provides that information be given to consumers by ensuring that, when a food's country of origin label under clause 2 discloses that it is sourced in a country where food production standards are

the label or mark is required to state that fact.

Clause 1 defines production standards as

I do not pretend that it has been easy to come up with a workable definition of production standards such that international differences in standards can be measured. I believe that that has been achieved, but there might be scope to tighten the definition in the Bill, and I should welcome assistance from the Government and other hon. Members in ensuring that the clause avoids any vagueness in a legal sense. Again, that is a matter to be considered in Committee. Clause 3(2) provides that in deciding

    whether, in relation to any food derived from livestock, the production standards in another country are less demanding than those applicable in England and Wales,

reference should be made to the standards applicable in England and Wales, namely

    codes of recommendations for the welfare of livestock

which are, from time to time, issued under the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 and which remain in force.

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As has been mentioned, that clause causes concern in the Government and other circles that the Bill might be incompatible with relevant single market rules. I do not believe that the obstacles are insurmountable. Food labelling is undeniably an area of EU competence and national Governments are not free to impose requirements that could be restrictive within the single market. I am aware that the Government are nervous at the prospect of Her Majesty's Government being prosecuted in the European Court of Justice if the Bill becomes law. I can well comprehend that that would be embarrassing, given that France now faces court action--albeit protracted, while our farmers continue to suffer unjustifiably from French action--for flagrantly contravening EU law by banning British beef unilaterally. However, those fears are less than well founded. Even if there were a possibility that the Bill is incompatible with EU law, that clearly has no procedural bearing on the ability of the national Westminster Parliament to enact the legislation.

I was genuinely disappointed and appalled to hear the response of the Minister of Agriculture to a question asked by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead. On being asked whether he agreed

he replied:

    The legislation introduced through the private Member's route--

that is, my Bill--

    is clearly designed to skirmish with the European Union, whose competence labelling is, rather than to solve any problem that is faced in the United Kingdom.--[Official Report, 10 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 389-90.]

That was an unworthy, wholly cynical and improper answer. I can assure the House and the Minister, who is not present but whose right hon. Friend the Minister of State is, that thoughts of skirmishing with the EU have played no part in my thinking, or to my knowledge that of anyone else who has been involved with the Bill. On the contrary, I have taken great pains to avoid any clash with the EU. Lord knows, this country plays by the rules, often to its cost--certainly, to the desperate cost of our pig farmers.

It is fair to say that the Government have acted in response to Conservative and, at times, Liberal Democrat initiatives on food labelling. Is it not about time the Government stepped up to their duty to match the Opposition parties' determination to deliver the right food labelling laws for the people of our country and to lead on the issue in the rest of Europe? My submission is that, with our experience and expertise in food labelling, this country should seek to lead Europe on that issue. If passed, my Bill would enable the Government to adopt a trail-blazing line in their continuing, but tortuous--with no timetable or sign of a speedy or even timely resolution--discussions with Europe. This country's food labelling laws could be the standard for the rest of Europe. I am sure that our European partners would welcome our initiative and leadership.

I learned to my surprise that when the Minister of Agriculture made his cheap and churlish remark about my Bill, he had not taken the trouble to read it. Since then, he has had it impressed on him by consumer and producer organisations outside the House, which have a great interest in my Bill becoming law, that it is a serious proposal for a series of measures that deserve close and sympathetic attention and support from the Government.

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I was therefore pleased to see that a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had responded to a journalist's request for a comment the day after the Minister's remark in the House. When asked about my Bill, the spokesman said that MAFF was

On the EU and its relationship to the Bill, I do not understand how it is possible for clause 3 to be in contravention of EU law when all the UK's food production and animal welfare standards comply, at the very least, with all applicable EU laws and regulations.

As we know, not only do we police and enforce those regulations rigorously--in contrast, sadly, to many of our fellow member states--but we implement them sooner. Witness Denmark and its decision not to implement, under the same EU directive applicable to us, the banning of stall and tethered pigs until 2006 or 2007.

The UK has an honourable record of going much further than the EU directive in animal welfare measures. The Government can be concerned about EU law contravention only where we go further, with higher food production and animal welfare standards.

If that is so, are the Government honestly saying that for the sake of keeping sweet with our European partners, we must allow into this country food products whose production and animal welfare standards are inferior to those imposed on our own farmers and other food producers?

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