Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman has told us a shaggy clam story, but I hope that he will not recount

2 Nov 2001 : Column 1130

too many similar experiences or long stories. If the Bill is to go into Committee, we need to make progress this morning.

Mr. Gardiner: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is always my intention on a Friday morning to examine the Bill before us and to give it a fair degree of scrutiny. Instead of Members urging me or anyone else in the Chamber to clam up, I hope that they will look not at the clam but at the oyster and seek to find the pearls of wisdom therein.

Another aspect of clause 1 concerns me. It relates to the interpretation of the term "major ingredient". It is a serious matter, because the clause states that

When I thought about the fact that a "major ingredient" had to form more than 25 per cent., I referred to "Dod's Parliamentary Companion 2002". I wanted to assure myself that the Conservative party formed a major ingredient of the House of Commons. I thought that it would be absolutely borderline but, on checking, I found that there were not 160 Conservative Members, as I had remembered, but 166. That means that, by a margin of two, they just form more than 25 per cent. of the House, so they can claim that they constitute a major ingredient.

Had I any doubts on that point, I know from looking at the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar that I need not have worried. The definition refers not to forming more than 25 per cent. but to forming

On that ground alone, the hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members are easily able to satisfy the rubric. I am happy about that.

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman might have seen me pointing to him in a threatening manner. Considering the amount of weight I have lost, he should have offered me some encouragement instead of mocking my bulk. We make the tasty part of this particular meal.

Mr. Gardiner: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking my remarks in the good humour with which they were intended.

Clause 3 is headed "Labelling: production standards". In it, the hon. Gentleman has hit on something that is of great concern to many of my constituents in Brent, North and, no doubt, to many of his. The point relates to the welfare of livestock and the treatment of animals. The British public are concerned that the standards of animal welfare that we wish to maintain in this country are not universally respected in the rest of the world or, indeed, in the rest of the European Community.

The Government make representations in the European Union on issues of animal welfare, and I am sure that many of us share the concern that we have not yet established a regime throughout Europe that we would consider matches this country's welfare standards for animal husbandry. There is more that we could do even in this country and this clause identifies an important point. Consumers want to be happy with the standards for the treatment of animals in the rearing and husbandry process. That is a matter not of vegetarianism, simply of animal welfare. People who are rightly happy to eat meat want

2 Nov 2001 : Column 1131

to know that the animals have been treated in a proper and humane way. I welcome that element of the hon. Gentleman's Bill.

I have certain concerns about the Bill. Scope for such national action as the hon. Gentleman seeks to introduce is limited by European law. It constrains any restriction on trade within the single market under the interpretation from Europe. If the Bill were adopted, it would inevitably be overturned by the European Court and could result in the UK being obliged to pay substantial compensation to affected interests. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able satisfy the House that those criticisms of his Bill are not correct. I fear that he may not. I applaud the hon. Gentleman's willingness to consider other aspects that may be introduced into his Bill at a later stage and his desire to achieve open, honest and transparent labelling, especially on the welfare of livestock. Elements of the Bill are worthy, and I wish him well with it.

10.51 am

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). As the candidate for Tatton, I followed his general election campaign closely. We were pleased to see him returned on election night, and I am pleased that he won a high place in the ballot for private Members' Bills and chose to reintroduce this one, albeit altered to take into account the points raised by the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), who is now leaving the Chamber, about its compatibility with European law. I am glad that my hon. Friend is continuing with the Bill that my neighbour and good Friend the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) introduced in the last Parliament.

There is no doubt that the food labelling Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury introduced struck a chord with the farming community and Members of Parliament like me who represent rural communities. There is great anger in the farming community that many of the high animal welfare and hygiene standards to which they adhere are not adhered to in other EU countries, and that they are placed at a disadvantage in the marketplace.

There is a sense among farmers that if consumers were given a real choice—if they could go into the supermarket and choose good-quality food produced from animals raised to a high standard of animal welfare—they would make that choice. The problem is that they do not have the information. That is why the Bill is so important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar rehearsed many of the tragic statistics about the state of farming. I recently met farmers in Chelford, which is a large agricultural market in the south of my constituency. Anyone who meets farmers these days cannot doubt how desperate the situation is for them. The total income from farming has fallen by two thirds in the past five years. Deloitte and Touche estimates that the average annual salary for farmers is just £8,000 a year. Bank borrowing by agriculture amounts to £10 billion a year. Investment levels are at their lowest since the 1970s.

The dire situation has been brought about by a number of factors. If we are honest, we should accept that we in the House have little control over some of them. One is the high value of the pound relative to the euro. There is

2 Nov 2001 : Column 1132

not much that we can do about that, except perhaps to reduce the dependency in the long term of farming on subsidies from Europe and the green pound. The second such factor is the low value of commodity prices across the world—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The Bill that we are discussing is about food labelling.

Mr. Osborne: Factors that we cannot control have damaged our agriculture, but one thing that we could do is introduce this Bill, which would make a huge difference to the state of farming. The food labelling laws are a mess. If you went into a supermarket, Madam Deputy Speaker, and saw my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar loitering by the bacon counter, you would find what he finds. You could pick up a pound of bacon that says "British", but the pig may have been raised in Holland in a sow stall or with a tether, practices that this House banned a decade ago. It could have been slaughtered in another European country that does not have the same slaughtering regulations that the House has introduced. The pigmeat could have been brought to this country, seasoned or smoked and packaged and then labelled "British Bacon". That is absurd.

When consumers come across my hon. Friend loitering by the bacon counter, like him, they are confused. They may want to buy bacon from pigs raised in humane conditions, but they cannot make that informed decision. They may want to buy bacon or other meat that has been slaughtered humanely, but they cannot make that informed decision. They may want to support British agriculture, but they cannot because the labelling laws cause confusion. The Bill would end that confusion.

It is striking how broadly the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury and this one have been welcomed by both consumer and farming groups. It was my dubious pleasure to be a special adviser—now a dirty word—to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for several years under the previous Government. It was remarkable how infrequently consumer organisations and farming bodies agreed. The Bill has a broad measure of agreement.

In the notes helpfully provided, at least for Conservative Members, it is clear that the Bill is supported by the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and the National Pig Association, but also by the Consumers Association. The Consumers Association said:

The Bill thus has a broad measure of support from consumers and farming organisations.

One striking thing about the farming community, as those who represent it in the House know, is how well informed farmers are about decisions made by the House and the Government. That is partly because their income is hugely dependent on the decisions of the Government. They are a politically well-informed group in our society. They follow our proceedings. Not many people will be

2 Nov 2001 : Column 1133

following them today, but the farming community will. What we say here will be circulated in agricultural markets, NFU newsletters and so on.

Farmers were disappointed when, for reasons that they did not fully understand, the Government squashed the previous Bill in the last Parliament. They will be disappointed and will not understand if the Government squash this Bill in this Parliament. This is an important Bill. So many things that we do to help farming and for which the industry asks are expensive, involve billions of pounds of subsidies, and require complex European negotiations and difficult regulations. But this is simple to do, works with the grain of the market and consumer choice, is welcomed by consumers and would do a great deal for farmers. I hope that the Bill gets the support that it deserves.

Next Section

IndexHome Page