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Environment Council

Mr. Hood: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what the outcome was of the Environment Council on 10 December; what the Government's stance was on the issues discussed, including its voting record; and if she will make a statement. [87183]

Margaret Beckett: I represented the UK at Environment Council on 9 December, accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. This was the final Environment Council of the Danish Presidency. The Council reached agreement on four proposals and also considered a number of other important issues.

Political approval was given to a Regulation implementing the Rotterdam Convention on establishing a system of Prior Informed Consent for trade in hazardous substances, and also to a Decision to ratify the Convention.

The Council reached unanimous political agreement on the greenhouse gas Emissions Trading Directive. In negotiation the UK had secured a number of changes to meet our key requirements and I strongly supported this proposal, which gives further effect to the EU's strong commitment to action on climate change. The agreement includes an opt-out for the first phase in 2005–07, which will assist the transition from established national emissions trading schemes such as we have in the UK into the EU scheme.

Political agreement was reached, by a qualified majority, on a Regulation on traceability and labelling of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The package included elements already agreed in Agriculture and Fisheries Council (such as the inclusion of products derived from GMOs but including no detectable GM material and a 0.9 per cent. labelling threshold) for the parallel Regulation on food and feed, which I had voted against. Debate at Environment Council principally concerned the identification requirements for bulk shipments of GMOs in agricultural commodities. I argued that the requirement should be aligned to the language in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which creates an obligation to

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identify the GMOs a shipment "may contain". Most other member states were able to accept a wording requiring the identification of GMOs that "have been used" in shipments, which I regarded as unduly restrictive and impractical, and an insufficient reflection of the requirements of the Cartagena Protocol. My view was that the final package did not provide a sound basis for consumer choice, and was unworkable. I therefore voted against, as did the Netherlands, Denmark and Luxembourg, on different grounds.

Council Conclusions were adopted on the Community's Strategy on the Sustainable Use of Pesticides. The Conclusions recognised the importance of reducing the environmental impacts of pesticides and emphasised the principle of subsidiarity, calling for Community action to complement action at member state level.

The Council adopted Conclusions in advance of the UNEP Governing Council in February 2003. These highlighted the need for a strategic approach to international chemicals management.

Member states and other interested parties have been waiting for some time for firm proposals from the Commission for a legislative package on Chemicals. The Danish Presidency called a debate at Council around what it regarded as four key areas of the future chemicals strategy—scope, sanctions, dealing with chemicals in products and handling small and medium sized enterprises and downstream users. There was a useful discussion and the Commission confirmed that it planned, as urged by the member states, to bring forward proposals as quickly as possible. The residency adopted Conclusions summarising the debate.

The Council also took note of progress reports on a proposal for a Regulation concerning monitoring of forests ("Forest Focus"), and on the draft Environmental Liability Directive. There were several difficult outstanding issues on the latter, which would be taken forward under the Greek Presidency.

The Council noted a Commission Communication entitled "Towards a strategy to protect and conserve the marine environment", advocating an ecosystem approach to managing the marine environment. The Danish Presidency gave a report of a marine environment conference held in Denmark in early December.

The Council also noted a presentation by the Commission on its proposal to amend the Bathing Water Directive, and a written presentation by the Commission of the recently adopted nuclear package, covering safety of facilities and management of radioactive waste.

Spain made a statement on the situation of the sunken oil tanker "Prestige" and its environmental impact on the Galician coast. Portugal and France expressed their own concerns. The Council adopted Conclusions complementing those adopted by Transport Council on 6 December. These Conclusions underlined the significant environmental impact of the incident and encouraged further work in the IMO to tackle these issues. It reiterated the need to ban single hull tankers

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for the transport of heavy grade oils, called for a review of safety conditions and condemned the practice of cleaning out tanks while at sea.

The Danish Presidency reported on the outcome of the 12th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, attributing much of the success of the conference to the personal contribution made by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State responsible for fisheries, water and nature protection.

Portugal made a statement on its difficulties in implementing Natura 2000 when most its sites were in private ownership. The Commission assured Portugal that it was bringing forward a Communication on Natura 2000.

Finally, the Council noted a Belgian statement underlining the importance of setting thresholds for the maximum tolerated levels of genetic contamination of seed.

EU Procurement Directive

Ms Walley: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what assessment she has made of the impact which the proposed new EU public procurement directive would have on the Government's ability to choose between procurement bids offering timber from (a) legal and sustainable sources, (b) legal and progressing to sustainable sources and (c) legal sources. [83931]

Mr. Meacher: The use of three distinct variant specifications for timber and wood products was recommended in the report on the timber scoping study that was commissioned by Defra in October 2001 and is currently under consideration. The rationale for this proposal is: (a) to allow poor producer countries some opportunities to compete for UK Government business and (b) to guard against any shortfall in supply that might jeopardise essential Government operations. The use of variants is permitted by the existing EU public procurement supply directive and the position is not changed by the new procurement directive as currently drafted.

What the report commissioned by Defra proposes is that bids based on the variant specification for "legal and progressing towards sustainable" would only be considered in the absence of an acceptable bid based on the higher standard variant specification. Similarly bids based on "legal" timber would only be considered in the absence of acceptable offers based on either of the two higher standard variant specifications.

Contracting Authorities would have the option of declining all bids if they believe that inviting fresh tenders would result in acceptable bids for legal and sustainable timber. However, where operational demands rule out such a course of action, it is practicable to include a fall back position that allows buyers to consider bids against the lower variants. Central Government Departments will be advised that whenever they receive acceptable offers to supply legal and sustainable products they should reject bids based on lower standard variant specifications.

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Public procurement directives require that contracts be awarded either to the lowest bid or to the bid that is most economically advantageous to the Contracting Authority. UK Government procurement policy is to select the most economically advantageous bid criterion because that provides true value for money in terms of quality and whole life costs. Quality in the context of timber procurement includes the standard of forest management. This means that preferring bids based on the top variant for "legal and sustainable" is consistent with both UK Government policy and EC Directives.

The report containing the full set of recommendations and other information is at: http://www.forestforum.–8-02.pdf. A notice was published in the Official Journal of the European Commission on 19 December announcing our intention to establish a contract for setting up a centre of procurement expertise to develop the practical implementation of variant specifications in line with those recommendations.(OJEC Ref (02/S246–196464/EN). An on-line version of this publication is at

Fair Price Commission

David Burnside: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what plans she has to establish a Fair Price Commission to examine the distribution of profits in the agri-food sector; and if this can be brought about within existing legislative frameworks. [88864]

Mr. Morley: The Director General of Fair Trading has powers under the Competition Act 1998 to investigate allegations of anti-competitive practice. But new legislation would be necessary to establish a statutory Price Commission, with powers to compel the industry to provide information, to undertake studies into the distribution of profits in the agri-food sector. The Government have no plans to establish a Fair Price Commission to examine the facts relating to the distribution of profits in the agri-food sector. The Government can commission less formal studies into such issues; for example, this is already being done in the milk sector by KPMG as part of a Milk Development Council (a Defra non-departmental public body) sponsored examination of UK milk prices and returns.

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