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Mr. McWalter: I seems to me that, in many ways, today's debate has moved matters on to the point where we feel far more confident that there is a sense of unity

3 Mar 2000 : Column 731

and purpose. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will lose his enthusiasm for lambasting and get on with the work of advancing the debate.

Mr. Letwin: I take the hon. Gentleman's point. If the Minister tells us that the Government will now adopt a constructive attitude to the Bill, I shall be happy to withhold further lambasting. My lambasting is to be regarded in an historical light if, as I hope she will, the Minister tells us that the Government intend to proceed in a spirit of conciliation. In pursuit of that fresh spirit, I shall now sit down.

2.7 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on his success in the ballot, on his choice of subject--one that is of great interest to every consumer and farmer in this country--and on his excellent and lucid speech in which he dealt convincingly with most of the objections raised. No one who has spoken in this excellent debate has attacked the principle of the Bill; the concerns expressed have been about points of detail. I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) say that he hoped to serve on the Standing Committee; I, too, hope that that will be possible.

As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) went to the heart of several important issues relating to the Bill. The measure is timely and it neatly unites the interests of both consumers and farmers. As several hon. Members have said, there is growing outrage among the public about defects in the current labelling laws. When consumers come to appreciate the true situation, they are shocked. It is wrong that products that do not contain a single ingredient that has been produced in this country may be labelled as British. That is outrageous, and many would regard such practices as a fraud on consumers who are deceived into buying the goods.

As concern over the scandal mounts, many organisations have tried to respond on a voluntary basis. I welcome the steps taken in respect of the British kitemark label and the co-operation between the National Farmers Union, the Meat and Livestock Commission, the Food and Drink Federation and the British Retail Consortium. All those bodies are doing good work and they have our support. The more that can be achieved on a voluntary basis, the better, but it would be better still if we could take the route signposted by my hon. Friend's Bill. Agriculture now faces its worst crisis for two generations. One response to that crisis should be the introduction, with no qualifications, of honesty in labelling--a principle to which the Conservative party is wholly committed.

Individual sectors of agriculture have been mentioned, including pig farming. I was disturbed to learn during the debate that a complaint originating within the House of Commons has been made about the protest that has been in Parliament square for the past month. I cannot believe that that complaint originated from an Opposition Member, and in that I believe that I can speak with some confidence for the Liberal Democrats as well.

I hope that if a complaint has been made by a Labour Member, steps will be taken to withdraw it, and that the Minister will make it clear that until the pig farmers who

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are protesting outside have had their concerns reasonably addressed, as the Prime Minister suggested would happen when he spoke to the NFU conference, the Labour party is happy for their entirely peaceful protest to continue.

There is concern about poultry meat, as we heard, and about some of the beef produced in France, which was the subject of two recent reports. Last year the European Commission inspectors exposed illegal feeding practices taking place in France, and in the past few weeks another European Commission report has uncovered serious deficiencies in the way in which France deals with suspected cases of BSE.

Meat produced under those conditions is entering this country, consumers are buying it, and they have no knowledge that it comes from France, despite the serious anxieties to which those European Commission reports give rise.

The problems encountered by British pig farmers producing to higher standards than many competitors abroad, the dangers to consumers of eating poultry that has been produced using growth-promoting substances that are banned throughout the entire EU for health reasons, and the dangers of eating meat that may have come in from France and which may be contaminated--all those problems would be directly addressed by the measures in the Bill.

Not only is the Bill badly needed, it is needed now. The gravity of the crisis is due in part to the enormous increase in import penetration. British farmers are experiencing difficult conditions--much more difficult than they were before 1997. That is partly because of the level of sterling, a factor outside the Minister's control. As a consequence, competition from imports is probably more severe than it has been for a long time. With the huge growth in the international trade in food products, the need for honesty in labelling is greater than ever.

We have heard many times in recent months from the Prime Minister, from the Agriculture Minister and other Ministers of their support for the principle of honesty in labelling. Today they have an opportunity for that support to be put into practice by allowing the Bill a Second Reading.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury recognised in his opening speech, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset confirmed, that there may be deficiencies in the drafting of individual clauses, but the time to address those is in Standing Committee. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury would welcome the chance to explore in more detail some of the concerns that have been raised during the debate.

If revisions are needed to make the Bill entirely consistent with our EU obligations, my hon. Friend and I are ready to support them, as long as the thrust of the Bill is not destroyed. I hope that in dealing with the EU requirements, Ministers and the House will be robust in their defence of British interests. That is necessary at all times, and it would certainly be needed in relation to the Bill.

If the Government decide to talk the Bill out today or use any other mechanism to block its progress to the next stage by denying it a Second Reading, they will be sending a clear and rather chilling message to consumers and farmers throughout Britain. Every rural community will be listening eagerly to the Minister's remarks and to the outcome of the debate.

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If Labour is not willing to offer support during the present crisis by allowing a Second Reading to a Bill that does not add a single penny to public spending and that embodies the principles that Ministers claim to support, Labour will be judged by its actions, not its words. It will rightly be judged harshly and condemned for denying the House a chance to examine in more detail a measure that is entirely constructive in its approach.

If the Bill does not get a Second Reading today, all those fine phrases from the Prime Minister and other Ministers will be exposed as utterly worthless. There is time for the Government to support the Bill, and I urge them to do so.

2.15 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): The debate has been interesting and worth while, and many valid points have been made. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) on his good fortune in securing such a good position in the ballot and on raising an important issue.

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) pointed out that I nodded much during the speech of the hon. Member for Eddisbury. I do not apologise for doing that because I agreed with many points that he made. My initial reaction to the Bill was understanding, sympathy and support. However, when I examined the few clauses in the measure, I had severe reservations about it. In the short time available, I hope that I can explain the reasons for that to the House. Hon. Members from all parts of the House have asked questions about the Bill's feasibility.

As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) pointed out, the substance of the Bill is contained in clauses 2 and 3. The problems of compatibility with European law that several hon. Members pointed out unfortunately exist. As I pointed out in an earlier intervention, the previous Government helped to effect that European law. Clauses 2 and 3 contravene EU law and that means that the Bill contravenes it.

Consistency is important. The hon. Member for Eddisbury said that he was worried about any suggestion that the Bill contravened EU law and that it was not his intention, even if it was that of others, to "clobber"--I think that was the word he used--EU law through the Bill. However, clauses 2 and 3 would do exactly that. They would mean acting unilaterally on matters about which we agreed under previous legislation to act in the framework of the European single market. Despite the Euro-scepticism that reigns among Conservative Members, the Conservative party and certainly the Liberal Democrats have a strong commitment to the operation of the European single market, which is important for our industry. It is important for agriculture as well as other industries.

Various sectors of agriculture export to other EU countries and it is important to safeguard those exports and ensure to the best of our ability that the European

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market works fairly. I am the first to admit that many aspects of that European market do not work fairly. The Government are seeking to tackle those aspects.

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