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Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for the opportunity to do so. I am in despair listening to the hon. Gentleman. So far today there has been some consensus in the Chamber that British consumers should have the opportunity to know what they are buying when they go shopping. The Bill seeks to achieve that objective. By going down a Europhobic, Eurosceptic route, the hon. Gentleman has completely lost the consensus and
Mr. Bryant: I do not question the hon. Gentleman's sincerity in wanting to achieve a laudable and honourable objectiveensuring that everyone has genuine information on the food that they eat; I think that every hon. Member agrees that that is a laudable and commendable objectivebut the Bill will not achieve that objective because it does not stand up legally within the European Union.
Moreover, I think that the Bill prevents us from achieving a bigger objective: the creation of a Europe-wide labelling system that enables Welsh dragons to appear in shops in Madrid, as they do already, and elsewhere across Europe, giving people some confidence about what they are buying. I do not think that the Bill will achieve that objective.
I believe that the Bill is flawed, and not in a way that could be rectified, improved, ameliorated or tidied up in Committee. I believe that it is so fatally flawed and so potentially dangerous to the business and farming interests of people in this country that we should throw it out, not just lock, but lock, stock and barrel.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) on achieving such a high position in the private Members' Bill ballot and selecting this Bill. As is well known, it deals with a topic that is close to my heart and affects the interests of those who operate in the rural economy, and everyone who lives, works and shops in towns and villages in my constituency and up and down the land. Hon. Members on both sides of the House should congratulate my hon. Friend on raising a key issue for the confidence of consumers and the need to rebuild confidence in the rural economy which sustains the livelihoods of so many peopleparticularly in the light of recent events, not least the foot and mouth crisis. I was enormously impressed by my hon. Friend's straightforward analysis in introducing the Bill.
I know that it is not usual to criticise the preceding speaker, but the comments by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant) were a departure from the broadly constructive tone of all the other speeches today. I hope that I will be able to address some of his points in detail. He was certainly flailing around with a number of issues in an attempt to claim that the Bill was flawed ab initio, although it was difficult to see how he could substantiate the serious points that he raised.
In general, we have had an enjoyable and important debate, not least because it gave rise to a degree of levity. We discovered that the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) certainly has a passion for food and was able to describe all sorts of recipes. We were all struggling to find which part of the Bill they related to, but we got there in the end.
The debate identified the enormous importance that the Bill gives to the tied interests between producers and consumers. As is well known by all who have taken the time to study this topic, our food labelling and food standards regulations are second to none by comparison with any country in the world, and that is absolutely right. That enormous body of regulation goes hand in hand with the quality and standards of production that our farmers are able to maintain. As I said in 2000 when I introduced the Second Reading of my Bill, which was subsequently amended by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar, it is clear that the insistence upon identifying country of origin and standards of production is needed
Although I understand the thinking behind thatnot least with the introduction of the Food Standards Act 1999there is a residual concern that the necessary value chain between producers and consumers has been divided, whereas in the past there was an attempt to ensure that it was brought together. That is important in the context of the Bill, because much of the presentation has depended on looking at the problem purely from a farmer's point of view. Of course it is important for all hon. Members who represent rural constituencies to consider what opportunities there are to support farmers and all those who produce from the land, be that cereal or meat. However, their support will be effective only if it coincides with the interests of consumers.
Although I welcome the Minister's presence, there is concern that food safety issues, on which the Department of Health naturally has an angle, have been over-emphasised and that we should instead be examining the total value chain from producers to consumers. I do not think that accountability is necessarily an issue, but farmers and all those who are engaged in the rural economy have recognised the shift which occurred between Second Reading of the original Bill on 3 March 2000, and now. It will be interesting to hear what different arguments the Minister will make. The subject was constructively discussed on 3 March last year.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I understood that the official Opposition supported the split between DEFRA, which remains responsible for the food industry, and the Department of Health, which is responsible for food safety. Is that no longer their view?
Mr. O'Brien: The support was genuinely given and that remains our position. The Bill does not merely cover food safety. It relates to consumer confidence, choice and rights to information so that people get what they think they are buying. Many people want to support the British rural economy, and farmers markets are doing an effective job in that regard. Food labelling has a double accountability, both for safety and for the broader sector.
Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that he will represent the Government view. I am not so reassured by his expression of concern. However, I am sure that we will be able to address that either today or in Committee.
When the former Agriculture Minister responded in the previous debate, she highlighted the Government's belief that the existing law was sufficient to deal with misleading, inaccurate or insufficient labelling. In addition, she feared that the Bill might not comply with the relevant provisions of EU law.
On the first point, it became apparent that the issues surrounding food labelling under regulation are encapsulated by guidance notes given to trading standards officers. They are not enforceable by way of law, but they do govern the expectations as to how trading standards officers should perform their duties. It is not even a statutory code in the same sense as the highway code, a point I made in our previous debate on the issue.
There have been a few moves since we last debated this about 18 months ago. However, there are still many instances of insufficient information on food packaging. Survey after survey shows a large body of opinion and evidence that consumers do not trust food labels. Not only do they find it difficult to find or understand the information contained on certain labellingthey may have to search long and hard to find a very small letter representing the country of origin, for examplebut the information is often encapsulated in great wodges of complex, detailed, small-print material, which creates difficulties for people whose lives are busy.
It is of course important to have such information there, not least on nutritional content, but there has been a proposal, which the Bill would facilitate, to consider a certification procedure for the country of origin. Perhaps holograms could be used, but whatever the method, it would be convincing. It would enhance consumer confidence if the labelling contained a kite-mark, certification or accreditation that encapsulated, providing that it was properly publicised, the nutritional, vitamin and GMO content as well as contents and production standards information. I think that that should be considered in Committee because it would help address the very serious points of the hon. Members for Cleethorpes and for Falmouth and Cambourne (Candy Atherton). The hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) also raised the very important subject of the allergen content. There is the 1 per cent. rule, but even below a content of 1 per cent. there can be a real risk for young children in particular and anybody who suffers that level of sensitivity.