Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: As the Minister is rightly placing a lot of reliance on the legal provisions, on behalf of my hon. Friend and myself, I repeat my request that the legal advice should be placed in the Library. Clearly, as so much of the Government's argument turns on that advice, it would be exceptionally helpful for us to have it.

Mr. Hutton: I am happy to write to both hon. Gentlemen setting out the details of the legal argument that we have received, rather than depositing the legal opinion in the Library, as we do not usually do that. I know that the argument has rattled around today about whether the Bill is within or without the European Union legal requirements. We have clear legal advice, not only to my Department, but to the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, that the proposed legislation would take us outwith those requirements.

The Bill proposes that the present origin labelling requirement be replaced with more extensive labelling rules that would make country of origin labelling compulsory in all cases. Clause 1 would extend that requirement to apply to any ingredient that forms more than 25 per cent. by weight of a food. The country of origin, as well as the country of processing or packing, would be required to be given equal prominence, and food produced to less demanding production standards than those applicable in England would need to be appropriately identified. That, in summary, is the hon. Gentleman's proposal today.

I believe that the measures introduced by the Bill on origin labelling of all food are in clear conflict with our Community obligations under directive 2000/13/EC and amount to measures having equivalent effect to a quantitative restriction on trade in breach of article 28 of the treaty.

The measures are also in conflict with article 10 of the treaty, which requires every member state to take all appropriate measures, whether general or particular, to ensure fulfilment of the treaty obligations and legislation made under the treaty, and to abstain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the objectives of the treaty. By virtue of section 2(1) of the European Communities Act 1972, the provisions of the EC treaty take precedence over incompatible domestic legislation.

2 Nov 2001 : Column 1181

For all those reasons, if the Bill were to proceed, it would be unenforceable. It would be subject to successful legal challenge by the European Commission, member states, manufacturers, importers and exporters. It is likely that the UK Government would be liable to pay substantial damages to affected interests. There is an unfortunate precedent for that, and I am afraid that I have to remind Conservative Members of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988. The Government found themselves in that situation and the taxpayer had to fund compensation for those basic and fundamental mistakes when the true extent of the treaty requirements was realised.

Although the Government share the Bill's objectives, we recognise our responsibility to uphold the law as it underpins the European single market. We take that responsibility seriously, as I am sure hon. Members do. Although we agree with the Bill's broad intention to improve labelling, its proposal for unilateral action in England in breach of EU law cannot be countenanced.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: Just in case the Minister does not reach his peroration, will he give an idea of how quickly our requirements can be achieved in Europe if the route outlined in the Bill cannot be followed?

Mr. Hutton: I thought I had reached my peroration. I can place in the Library a copy of the detailed proposals that have been sent to the European Commission outlining how the Government want to improve the origin labelling requirements that we believe are not strong enough. I am not master of the timetable, but we are pursuing the proposals with vigour in the European Commission because we are not satisfied with the extent of consumer protection and how it supports consumer choice. If the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members want to see details of the proposals, I shall make them available to the House. Although I cannot be specific about the outcome in terms of changes to EU legislation, we are up for this challenge and going at it as quickly as possible.

The advantage of acting at EU level is explicit. EU rules exist for good reasons. European laws avoid inconsistency and therefore consumer confusion. They ensure that consumers are provided with clear consistent information on labels about the foods that they find on shop shelves, wherever those foods come from. They also promote free trade, which benefits producers and manufacturers as well as consumers, and prevent other countries from applying national rules that might block our exports. It would not be a good idea to chuck out those benefits in haste because of a concern about the adequacy of food labelling requirements. We have much to lose if we take the advice of the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar.

It was argued that with revision the Bill might be legal and effective. I do not think that that is so. There is limited scope under the food labelling directive for national action

2 Nov 2001 : Column 1182

to be taken to require additional labelling particulars that are not required by the directive. However, that is only for specified foods and not for foods generally. The Bill's measures would apply across the board to all foods and so are not allowed. Its thrust would be reduced if the proposed measures were revised to apply only in respect of specified products rather than foods generally.

Moreover, it is necessary for proposed national measures to be notified and justified to the Commission and other member states in advance, and that simply has not happened. Such notification is required under the terms of the food labelling directive and technical standards directive 98/34/EC. The Commission and other members states then scrutinise national provisions to see whether they impede the free movement of goods in the single market. The process is likely to result at the very least in the inclusion of a mutual recognition clause allowing imports that do not comply.

Revising the Bill's proposed measures to confine its application to home produce—the only way in which it would sustain or survive a legal challenge—would result in the loss of most of the benefits that the hon. Gentleman seeks to secure for British consumers, as well as unfairly placing a cost burden on our food processing and manufacturing industries alone.

The European Court of Justice has ruled on national origin labelling provisions in case C32/90, the EC Commission v. Italy—the so-called Italian pasta case. Italian national legislation required manufacturers of extruded pasta products—I am not quite sure what those are—to state on the label the date of manufacture and the place of origin or provenance of the product. The European Court of Justice—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 15 March.

Remaining Private Member's Bill


Mr. Deputy Speaker: Not moved.

Mr. Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath): Moved.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Not moved, actually.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook and Small Heath (Mr. Godsiff) was not in his place and must accept my ruling that the Bill was not moved at the operative time.

2 Nov 2001 : Column 1181

2 Nov 2001 : Column 1183

Policing (Hampshire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Angela Smith.]

2.30 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I am delighted to have secured this debate on policing in Hampshire. As is my custom in Adjournment debates, I have given the Minister a rough idea of the points that I intend to make. They are not partisan—indeed, the only party political references that I shall make are at the beginning.

The Government's heart is in the right place on low-level community crime. The 1997 new Labour manifesto said:

In 1998, the then Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), stated:

In 1999, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), declared:

In the 2001 Labour manifesto, however, there was no mention of zero tolerance. Perhaps the Government thought that the deed was done and that the problem had been solved. It was not, and it has not been.

I refer to two very different stories from the national press. On 26 September this year, the Daily Mail ran an uplifting story entitled "Supercop" and described the

Police constable Tony Sweeney took over the beat on a rundown estate. Within a year, he had slashed crime on the Lincoln Green estate in Leeds by a staggering 80 per cent., thanks to walking the beat and an old-fashioned approach to law and order. He said:

He added:

So far, so good. The Government recognised Constable Sweeney's achievement. The article described how that week he was congratulated in person by the Prime Minister at a reception held at Downing street.

2 Nov 2001 : Column 1184

Let us contrast that story, however, with "Tormented to Death", a story in the Daily Mail today:

His wife said:

The local inspector from Humberside police, in whose jurisdiction this took place,

There is the nub of the problem: those two very different approaches to policing. There are the people who go out, are proactive and take firm steps against youngsters who are causing disruption and distress, and there are the people who wait for things to happen and then react as best they can, instead of deterring the menace in the first place.

Let me move the debate into the context of my New Forest, East constituency, 80 per cent. of whose population live in the town of Totton or in the villages along the waterside. I have here a note written as an open letter to unknown parents by a waterside pensioner who lives in Hythe. She asks them:

This is not a party political matter. The local Liberal Democrat district councillor for Hythe, Maureen McLean, has been quoted in the local press as saying:

I have a file full of similar individual complaints, but lest what I say be dismissed as anecdotal, I shall refer to one or two of the letters that I have had from more organised sources. The Marchwood parish council deputy clerk, Mrs. Jane Kitcher, wrote to me as follows:

2 Nov 2001 : Column 1185

So it is hardly difficult to spot those people or take action, if one is so minded. The letter continues:

to the police at Hythe—

At the other end of the waterside is Fawley parish. In The Southern Daily Echo of 10 October, Eddie Holtham, an independent parish councillor, listed the events that take place in "A week in the parish of Fawley". Day by day he sets out the gangs, the troubles, and the ineffective response of police when summoned.

The Totton and Eling Community Association has written to me saying:

I shall pass over the other individual cases, but I assure the House that I have plenty more in that vein.

I do not accept that the police cannot do more. There is a tendency towards centralisation. There is a tendency to see loutish behaviour as a relatively low priority, and to be reactive rather than proactive. That means that the trouble occurs before the police are seen, instead of visible policing deterring the troublemakers in the first place. The police cannot be on beat patrol everywhere all the time, but that does not mean that they should not be on beat patrol somewhere some of the time.

A proactive strategy, involving selective strikes against known troublemakers and gangs, would pay dividends in terms of deterring crime and reassuring my long-suffering constituents.

I accept that there cannot be much incentive for undermanned police units to take action against low-level community crime if the end result of all the preparatory paperwork that they have to undertake is an ineffective court punishment, laid down by people who have little direct experience of the misery caused to ordinary folk. If that were not enough, the judicial framework has so been twisted in recent years that if a policeman or teacher is accused of using even the most limited physical chastisement on a misbehaving child the result is likely to be suspension, prosecution and professional ruin.

I know that the chief constable of Hampshire, Paul Kernaghan, is fighting hard to improve recruitment by stressing the inadequacy of the outer London allowance of £1,000 granted after the abolition of the rent allowance. House prices in Hampshire are high. My right hon. Friend the Member for North–West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) has endorsed that view, pointing out that policemen are drawn either to London with full housing allowances or to areas such as the south-west where housing costs are lower than in Hampshire.

I repeat that this is a cross-party issue. My near neighbour, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey), does not dissent from my view that there is serious concern in the community about the adequacy of grass-roots policing. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) tells me that only two policemen are responsible for 50,000 residents at night in the western half of the town. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) adds that police numbers in

2 Nov 2001 : Column 1186

the Forest area have declined from 80 to 60 during the past four years and that the task of those remaining is not made easier by what he describes as

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) reports that the chief constable

and that—

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) has had some success in addressing the problem in his constituency. Before I conclude and enable the House to have the benefit of his experience, I refer to one further matter of which I gave the Minister notice. It relates to the Netley Marsh steam and craft show, which is held annually and is one of the biggest voluntary events in my constituency. The show's chairman, Brian Shillabeer, and its secretary, Tony Greenham, raise more than £20,000 every year. The money is donated exclusively to local charities, sometimes including the police benevolent fund and the police sports and social fund.

In 1996 and 1997, it cost only £840 a year to police the event. In 1998, the figure jumped to £1,536. In 2000, a further increase to £1,920 put a stop to the additional donations made to the police funds. This year, a massive £3,574 is being extracted. The rally organisers have been told to expect that ratchet to continue to tighten until the horrendous total of £12,000 a year is eventually required. That would remove between a third and a half of the money that is raised for charity by that event.

I am unhappy that such events are, frankly, being over-policed, at a price that the organisers cannot afford, when constituents who are genuinely in fear for their safety are not getting the community policing service that they are entitled to expect. I hope that the Minister sympathises with what I have said, and that he can say something positive to reassure my long-suffering constituents.

Next Section

IndexHome Page