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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): My hon. Friend has filled me with depression. The other day, I had a bad sore throat and took a large dose of vitamin C and zinc. By the following morning, I was absolutely back to scratch and was able to fight off the cold.
Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is right to be depressed, because if this measure is fully enforced he will no longer be able to take the tablets that he and millions of other consumers have got used to taking.
The German Federal Institute of Risk Assessment and the German Government are of course free to take decisions on what is right or wrong for German consumers. That is none of this Parliament's business, but it is surely Parliament's role to take decisions about what is right and wrong for British consumers.
Dr. Julian Lewis: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way yet again. Surely if ever there was a case to put to the test the concept of subsidiarity, this is it. Why on earth are individual countries not qualified to take such decisions for themselves? I hope that my hon. Friend will mention at some point in his speechif we give him the chance to complete itwww.conservatives.com, where people can sign up by email to the campaign to save these health foods. If they visit that website, they will also doubtless imbibe its many other beneficial features.
Chris Grayling: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention; I hope that those listening to this debate will take his advice and look at that website. He is right about the principle of subsidiarity, which I will discuss in a moment.
This issue also affects business, so given his responsibilities it should concern the Minister for Energy and E-Commerce, who is here to speak in this debate. According to the Government's regulatory impact assessment document, the measure will cost jobs. It says that the Government were told by companies and trade associations that the associated costs would be onerous; indeed, according to one business, the measure could have a severe effect on its competitiveness and could ultimately lead to its going out of business. The document also says that the Government were told that, at best, companies would be forced to discontinue a wide range of products, and that the resulting cost would constitute a considerable loss to any company, but particularly to a small and medium-sized enterprise. The Government were further told that, at worst, some businesses might no longer be viable.
How much evidence do the Government need to realise that this measure will cost jobs? Why do they believe it fair that companies that have been selling such products in this country perfectly legally for many years will suddenly find on 1 August that they no longer have the right to do so? How can that be fair? How can that be right for any business? It is a travesty, and a real injustice to those hard-working entrepreneurs who are trying so hard to make their businesses a success.
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Do we really believe that there will be European harmonisation? What evidence is there that other Governments will introduce this measure? Let us consider the example of Greece. There, vitamins have always been tightly controlled; indeed, they are sold in pharmacies. Do we really believe that following this measure's introduction, the Greeks will change their practice, the market will suddenly be thrown open and vitamins will be sold in local supermarkets? We might believe that, but the Greeks do not. According to contacts in the industry in Greece, they are not going to change the way that they do things.
Mrs. Browning: My hon. Friend is being very generous. Of course, the reality of our treaty-bound relationship with the European Union is that under those treaties, we do not have mutual recognition of goods and services; rather, we have the vertical integration of harmonisation bound by treaty. Whatever Greece, France or Italy do is almost academic, because such countries can start infraction proceedings against us if we do not comply with any European statutory instrument.
Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend will doubtless agree that our Government's spinelessness in challenging the European Commission on these issues is disappointing. Many other Governments are willing to challenge the Commission when their interests are at stake, and it is about time that ours started doing the same.
What have the Government done to try to prevent this situation from arising? I am afraid that the answer is, precious little. Ministers have led consumer groups and the industry up the garden path on this issue. A year ago, I urged the Minister responsible for public health to discuss the problem with the European Commission to see whether the impact of the directive could be mitigated. She promised the industry that she would intervene with the Commissioner, but nothing happened. She was asked again, and still nothing happened. In the end, I went to see the Commissioner myself. If Her Majesty's Government could not be bothered to do that on Britain's behalf, Her Majesty's Opposition could.
I discussed the problem with the Commissioner and his officials. They listened carefully, but told me that our conversation should have been held two years previously. I hope that Ministers will say why that conversation was not held two years previously. Where were the Government, when they still had the chance to make a difference? How many times did Ministers intervene to try to improve the directive? Did they instruct our embassies in European capitals to make representations to our European partners? What did they do?
I became Opposition health spokesman in 2002. I remember having a meeting with the Food Standards Agency, and being told that we had secured the best deal available. However, it was a pretty poor deal.
Not much has changed. As we hold this debate today, the European Court in Strasbourg is considering a case brought by the industry in this country that argues that the directive is illegal. Did the Government back the
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case, and encourage it? No, they did not. I discovered that they were not enthusiastic about the case, but instead entered a submission that was both clear and stark. They argued that the directive was proportionate and a good starting point, and that it was consistent with the principles of subsidiarity. What a betrayal of British consumers.
Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem goes wider than the directive? It also relates to the amendment to the directive on pharmaceuticals that widens the definition of a drug, and to the directive on traditional herbal medicinal products. Limiting competition is very much in the interests of large pharmaceutical companies.
Chris Grayling: I have studied the matter, and the lesson that I have learned is that our Ministers seem to leave jobs like this to their officials. They are not willing to take a lead themselves, which means that our businesses and consumers are bound to suffer.
I want to give the Minister a chance to rebut a wicked rumour that is in circulation. It has been suggested that the submission to the European Court was not seen by Ministers. I should be very happy to give way to the Minister if she wants to correct me and state that that rumour is wrong.
Mr. Tredinnick: I rise to help my hon. Friend. The ghastly truth is that, despite pressure, the Department of Health flatly refused to see anyonemanufacturer or colleagueabout this subject until the summer of 2002. On 17 June of that year, the Department agreed to see my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and me. The reason was that the Minister's predecessor was due to appear before European Standing Committee C the next day, and the Government were nervous about being made to look ridiculous. They were determined not to address the issue, but were forced to do so by a Committee of this House.
The most revealing response to questions about the directive from hon. Members came when the Government told my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), in September 2003, that the UK had no choice about implementing the food supplement directive because of our obligations under the European treaty. That shows a blind acceptance that there was no alternative to the directive.
However, other countries do not take that approach. They are willing to challenge the Commission, and have done so on many occasionsin respect of the sale of British beef, for example, or the payment of subsidies to large companies, or the stability and growth pact. Why are we always too spineless to say no?
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That is what the motion is about. No one wants to break treaty obligations, and we all want a constructive relationship with our European partners, but that is not a reason for blindly accepting changes that will have such a negative effect on the people whom we represent. They do not want those changes, and it is time for us to say, "Enough!"
The motion would not repeal the food supplement directive, but it would instruct the Government to renegotiate it. It expresses a willingness to repeal that and other such directives if our European partners do not work with us to find a better way. We could, for example, simply apply the directive to international trade and have a derogation for in-country sale of products. We could expand the approved list to include the missing nutrients. A variety of things could be done, with political will and leadership. We could secure amendments to the directive and ensure a better deal for British manufacturers and consumers, especially when this country holds the presidency of the EU.
If the Government will not seek to amend the directive, it is time that this House made its voice heard. It is here in the Housenot in Downing street or in the Departmentthat the power to decide lies. It is for us to decide whether we are willing to accept or tolerate measures that the people we represent do not want. I have no doubt that in an unwhipped vote the measure would not have been passed by the House in the first place. In an unwhipped vote tonight, it would certainly be comprehensively rejected. The challenge now is for Labour Members. Whom do they represent here? Are they here to do the will of the people? No Labour Member can be in any doubt about what people outside really think. Now is our chance to start the process of getting rid of this unwanted directive. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there waiting for us to do just that. They are waiting for Labour Members to back this motion. If they do not, those hundreds of thousands of people will be ready to pay them back.
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