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7.3 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I could probably disagree with one or two statements made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor). I understand that we are discussing a take-note motion, but it gives us an opportunity to debate an extremely serious issue.

I also disagree with my hon. Friend about New Zealand farming. It is true that subsidies were stopped for farming there, but other subsidies still exist and there are also questions of marketing and processing to consider. When the agriculture recession hit New Zealand, the majority of

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farmers were on some form of benefit payment. To say that when he spreads his butter on his wholemeal bread for breakfast, he is eating unsubsidised butter may not be true. It is good butter, however. Furthermore, in New Zealand grass grows for 11 months of the year, which gives their farmers a slight advantage over hill farmers in the north of England. That is why vulnerable farms here need some form of assistance.

As always with such European issues, we are ill at ease because we do not know where we shall be at the end of the process. We do not even really know the route that has been proposed. Those of us who have lived through such things in the past know only too well that what starts as an apparently beneficial and useful idea ends up being costly and complicated for those who become involved. For example, the EU directive on abattoirs was printed on two sides of A4 paper, but by the time that it had been fully implemented, the United Kingdom's slaughtering industry had been virtually wiped out because of it. I always embark on such things with a certain trepidation.

Having said that, I do not disagree with the proposals on the European food authority. However, I should be grateful to the Minister if she would tell us her views on the House of Lords recommendations. Unlike my hon. Friend, I think that the value of the EFA would be its independence. The House of Lords recommended:

The EFA would represent an important development if it were to have that power because, as has been said, it is feared that substandard food gets into the EU through its weakest border. We know that some EU countries pay little attention to what food comes into their countries because they know that it is simply in transit from their port of entry to other parts of Europe. If the EFA could flag up that issue, it would do the EU and its nations a service.

I appreciate that the Minister will want some time to answer the questions that have been asked, so I shall briefly explore the detail of two other matters that were mentioned by the National Farmers Union in its briefing and by hon. Members, the first of which is how much the EFA can stray into dangerous areas. The NFU suggests that as

We need to clarify exactly what powers the EFA will have to deal with such issues.

The same applies to genetically modified organisms, because the NFU suggests that the EFA will have a view on GMOs, and the EFA's expert views may well contrast with those of individual nation states. Certain people in the United Kingdom are highly nervous about genetic modification, whereas I am pleased to say that people in other parts of Europe take a more robust view and think that genetic modification is a good thing. I agree with that view; I am one of the few people who think that it is a thoroughly good science that should be encouraged.

Secondly, I want to say something about plant and animal health and welfare. That does not form part of the EFA proposals, but it is dealt with in the general food law

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section of the EU document. Again, interesting anomalies could arise between different countries. The Minister may or may not be aware that, for example, the use of stalls and tethers in pig rearing was abolished unilaterally in the United Kingdom. That obviously caused considerable additional costs for our pork producers, but stalls and tethers were not outlawed in Denmark. If the objective was to rule that the use of stalls and tethers was satisfactory because they were not prohibited in other European countries, what recourse would United Kingdom farmers, who could no longer use them, have to compensation for being put at a disadvantage?

When organisations such as the EFA start to deal with health and food safety issues, there is scope for costs to increase greatly and for the market to be distorted in consequence.

Mr. Drew: It is a question of persuading the Danes to bring their animal welfare standards up to those of this country. That is the way to approach the matter.

Mr. Atkinson: The hon. Gentleman is right, but the Danes may argue that there is no welfare problem with the practice. If that were endorsed Europe wide, our pig farmers would have the right to challenge it.

I would be interested to hear more detail about the issues that I have mentioned if the Minister can provide it in the time available. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) that much more has been raised than she can deal with in her reply. We have had an interesting debate. I hope that we have shone a little light—clearly not enough for my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East—on what could be a complex and important issue.

7.10 pm

Ms Blears: With the leave of the House, I shall reply.

There have been several extremely well informed and expert contributions to the debate. I for one have certainly learned some interesting new information. I shall do my best to respond to the questions that have been raised, but if I am unable to cover one or two of them, I shall certainly reply to hon. Members in writing.

The hon. Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) wondered whether the European food authority would be a new layer of European bureaucracy. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford was concerned that it would become unduly meddlesome, unnecessarily interfering and an extra burden on us. I reassure him that there is absolutely no intention that the EFA will become a bureaucratic body. In fact, it will rationalise much of the scientific information available in Europe. I understand that, at the moment, there are eight separate scientific committees advising the European Union on a range of issues. The proposal is for six different scientific committees and one overarching committee, so that there is unity and coherence in the system. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Burns: To reassure the Minister, I was saying that a balance must be struck. All too often, organisations set

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up by Governments become bureaucratic, but I was not saying that the EFA necessarily would. We must ensure that it does not.

Ms Blears: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification and for what I take to be support for the organisation. The issue is important. In this case, the proposal is about bringing together mechanisms to try to ensure that we do not duplicate our activity but draw added value from pooling our scientific knowledge.

Other hon. Members raised the issue of the coherence of the system and member states' input into the EFA. I reassure them that the advisory forum will comprise representatives of all member states—from the Food Standards Agency in our case and from similar institutions in other member states. Therefore, there will be an opportunity to pool expertise and knowledge while at the same time maintaining a connection with local institutions. The EFA will not, as it has been alleged, sit on top of member states' institutions. It will be a partner in a network. It is a key issue for us that the EFA is not about overlapping of layers but about added value.

The quality of scientific advice has been mentioned. That is also a key issue. If the organisation is to have credibility not just in the European Community but internationally, it must draw together the very best scientists. We intend to draw on opinions from outside the EU as well as from within it to amass the best science possible. The key to the credibility of the institution is putting all that information in the public domain so that people can make informed choices. Therefore, the EFA will make a tremendous contribution.

Hon. Members asked whether the authority will be proactive or reactive. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made some important points about the proactive nature of our Food Standards Agency, which holds hearings, involves the public and is developing a new approach. I am pleased to say that the European authority will play a proactive role. It will be able to take up matters that are in its remit; it will not simply react to events, but explore what goes on in the wider community.

I said in my opening remarks that we want to ensure that the EFA's remit is tight, with a core focus on food and food safety. Other issues, such as animal welfare and plant health, impinge on food safety, but we have managed to amend the mission statement for the authority so that its role is limited to providing scientific opinion on the other issues when they have no bearing on food or feed. That will occupy no more than 5 per cent. of the authority's overall work. I hope that that reassures hon. Members that the EFA's remit is focused on food safety, not other matters.

Hon. Members asked about tightening country of origin labelling. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East is clearly knowledgeable about that and holds strong opinions. We are pressing for changes to the rules to provide clear, unambiguous country of origin labelling. We appreciate that consumers want improvements in labelling, and it is a priority for us. The Food Standards Agency is about to review current guidance to ascertain whether we can toughen it. It is clearly important to the public.

I was asked whether, had the EFA existed, it could have identified the problems of BSE. It is difficult to speculate about that time, when little knowledge was available. I was also asked whether the EFA could have prevented

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the French from banning British beef. I should like to believe that the advisory forum, which will comprise member states, could have met to share knowledge and expertise and work for consensus. The action by the French was illegal and is a matter for the European Court. However, I like to believe that when we can share knowledge and expertise maturely, we can prevent such difficulties from arising.

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