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Shona McIsaac: My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) referred to nut allergies. How will the Bill relate to restaurant food? Growing numbers of people eat out and as far as I can see there is no way that the Bill would give consumers in restaurants any information. The restaurateur would have to choose to say where the food on a menu came from.

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Lady is right. Clause 4(2) states:

Let us take the example of buying a steak in a pub restaurant. How do we know that it comes from Scotland, even though its description on the menu as Aberdeen Angus might be intended to imply that, and not Botswana or Paraguay? Although food regulations govern information provided on the outermost packaging, the difficulty is with the menu. The information necessary to help the consumer choose should be given at the point of consumption and choice.

At the bottom of the menu—not necessarily by every item—there should be a small indication that, for example, the food was not all from the United Kingdom.

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Then people who were concerned about that would be able to inquire further. If the restaurateur chose, he could say precisely where each ingredient came from—but of course we must recognise that that could be burdensome, given that food is often sourced from different countries.

That was a long answer to the hon. Lady's intervention. I thought that the Minister was intending to say something about it, too—but perhaps he feels that I have covered the ground sufficiently, and it does not need any further explanation. [Interruption.] The Minister says that I have muddied the water sufficiently. I thank him; I regard that as a badge of honour.

Shona McIsaac: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the commercial document is the menu?

Mr. O'Brien: If a menu is not a commercial document, what is? Patently, it is an invitation to treat, which I think would be regarded as a commercial document according to most tests, because one cannot treat unless one is intending to undertake, or is in the course of, a commercial transaction. Treating implies consideration under the law. I do not know whether the hon. Lady wishes to pursue the point, but I am dredging into a deep and distant solicitor's background; I gave up practising 13 years ago, so I hope that I attended the right lectures to give her that answer.

Shona McIsaac: Will the hon. Gentleman explain how the provision can apply only when the commercial documents mentioned in clause 4(3)

Would the menu have to accompany the food at all times? I am confused by that part of the Bill.

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Lady makes a fair interpretational criticism. The meaning is indeed intended and fairly clear—but I hope that she will agree that it would be appropriate for discussion in Committee. I do not think that it represents a fundamental flaw.

Mr. Bryant rose

Mr. O'Brien: I shall move on, because I want to ensure that I give the Minister sufficient time to discuss all the points that have been raised, and I hope that the Bill will find favour with him.

We have discussed ministerial accountability, and the value chain between consumers and producers, which we recognise is particularly important to our hard-pressed rural economy—represented not least in the constituency of Eddisbury. If I combine my constituency with that of my hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), the total represents the largest milk field in Europe by a wide margin, in terms of both quality and value. These considerations are of intense importance to all our constituents.

My hon. Friend's Bill contains amendments that address the Government's fundamental criticisms of my Bill, and it is notable that both that Bill, 18 months ago, and the present Bill, have attracted not only the support of the National Farmers Union and the National Pig Association, but the repeated support of the Consumers Association, which has continually said that country of

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origin labelling needs to be put in place. That is why it is important to make these points about the need for producer and consumer interests to be tied together.

Notably, my hon. Friend has also enlisted the support of the Food and Drink Federation. That endorsement is a very significant aspect of the presentation of his Bill.

Mr. Bryant: Returning to the issue of menus in restaurants, we might all accept that it is nice to know whether a piece of beef comes from Argentina, Scotland or elsewhere, but I am not sure whether the Bill would mean that the country of origin of not only the steak but the peas, the chips and the onion rings would have to be listed, too.

Mr. O'Brien: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will concede that the issue relates to consumer confidence; that would be the focus, especially as regards meat products. The wording of the subsection—like that of all Bills—is sufficiently general to ensure that, in this case, the detail could cover aspects of normal commercial life. That could include menus as well as other things. The hon. Gentleman's point would be a proper one for Committee. I hope he will agree that it would not form part of his criticism that the Bill was fundamentally flawed and should not proceed. I do not agree with those points and do not think that he substantiated them.

The measure presents the Government with a genuine and easy opportunity to further a matter of deep interest to the constituent interests that I listed earlier. The Bill has been sufficiently well thought through. Clauses 3(1) and 4(1)(e) incorporate changes which address the main concerns articulated by the then Minister of State at MAFF when we debated my Bill.

When the Minister of State, Department of Health responds, it is important for us to understand whether he has genuine concerns about the underlying concepts of the Bill. In the debate on my Bill, the Government expressed sympathy but then went on to explain why they would not support it. That caused much consternation to many of those constituent interests throughout the country and there was a great deal of publicity about it. The matter will not go unnoticed; it is of deep concern to many people.

The issues that lie behind the Bill are of sufficient moment for us to have held a serious debate today. We have to decide how quickly we want to make these improvements: either by means of a Bill or by continuing ministerial negotiations in Europe on various delegated aspects of authority and regulation. Despite numerous warm words—I do not deny their warmth—progress has been marginal and action has been limited. I do not doubt that although the negotiations in the halls of the European Union may look serene on the surface, frantic pedalling goes on below; but for those who are not involved, it is the outcomes that matter. There is no sense that real progress has been made in the various negotiating forums of the EU. It seems that we are being forced to go at the slowest pace—that of those in the EU who have interests to protect.

The UK has some of the best and most developed food labelling and food standards regulation and authorities. It will be a bit of a disappointment and certainly a surprise if the Minister does not want to take this opportunity to

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make progress. The Government often want to take the lead: the Bill would give them the chance to lead in Europe and to demonstrate that our country can add value to the standards regime throughout Europe. We should do that, because we all want to raise standards. We want to celebrate not only the regional diversity of foods—that could be continued under the existing regulations—but also the countries of origin, so that there will no longer be confusion as to the interpretation of current EU law. We could thus avoid disparity, for example, between the actions taken by France in relation to our beef and our actions on other matters. We can show real leadership, and the Bill offers the Government and the Minister a genuine opportunity to do so.

It is difficult to resist asking: why not try to introduce this legislation; why not send it to Committee; why not let it be the vehicle to explore these issues and ensure that the EU can learn from these debates rather than going through the existing labyrinthine procedures?

One important aspect that has been overlooked so far—it is the only point that my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar did not make in his opening remarks—is that the Bill has a huge advantage which all Governments look for: it does not represent a burden on the taxpayer. To the extent that labels will have to be changed, there is a cost implication for the commercial interests affected, but given the already large number of packaging and labelling regulations, the Bill merely represents an adjustment. There is unlikely to be a cost burden on businesses.

I therefore recommend that the Minister look favourably on the Bill. In pure policy terms, the Conservative party would like to keep this attractive policy for itself because it would cost taxpayers nothing. Surely that must be of interest to the Minister.

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