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Supermarket Code of Practice

10. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What recent discussions she has had with colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry regarding the supermarket code of practice. [215598]

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): The supermarket code of practice was one of a number of subjects discussed when my noble Friend Lord Whitty met the Minister with responsibility for competition on 1 February to talk about issues in the supermarket sector.

Mr. Carmichael: May I tell the Minister, however, that there is growing frustration among farming and crofting communities that while supermarkets announce ever-increasing profits, the farmers and crofters who supply them are struggling to survive? Does he agree that the present code, which is voluntary, has been largely ineffective, and that the code now needs to be made enforceable to embrace the whole supply chain? My farming constituents should not be left carrying the cost for special offers in supermarkets without ever having agreed to that.

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman rightly reflects the feelings of producers about the supermarket code of practice. That was reflected in the findings of the Office of Fair Trading on the views of producers. It has now commissioned the compliance audit, which is due to be published in the next few weeks. For the first time, that will provide focused information on the operation of the code. We should await that, read it with interest, and Members on both sides of the House will no doubt want to focus on it as soon as it is available.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): It would help farmers and small businesses if the practice of predatory pricing by supermarkets were to be stopped. Other countries have laws preventing retailers from selling goods at lower than cost. Now that the Office of Fair Trading has said, at least in respect of alcohol, that minimum prices are not anti-competitive in some circumstances, will my right hon. Friend try to persuade the DTI to accept that in the case of our food and drink, minimum prices would be acceptable?

Alun Michael: What I am prepared to do is wait for the outcome of the compliance audit. That will provide us with a factual basis in order to discuss these matters further. As my hon. Friend knows, we are working, through the support of English Farming and Food Partnerships and the Food Chain Centre, to enable producers to get a fair return from the end price. I do not think that we should jump ahead of the publication of the compliance audit. We should all focus on that.

European Trade

11. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): What discussions she has held with European Trade Commissioners about health and sanitary standards as a barrier to trade in agricultural products. [215599]
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The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I meet the Agriculture Commissioner regularly and the Trade Commissioner on occasion. I have not had occasion recently to discuss health and sanitary standards with them either generally or with regard to specific issues.

Dr. Cable: Will the Secretary of State agree to support Peter Mandelson in his efforts to remove unjustified trade restrictions by publishing her own list of trade-
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restricting standards that have no scientific basis—for example, aflatoxin content, which is used to exclude African products, despite a risk factor of fewer than one in a billion lives?

Margaret Beckett: We have, as yet, had no formal notification that the European trade department is intending to pursue such a step, but we will certainly consider with very great interest any proposal that comes forward.

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Speaker's Statement

12.30 pm

Mr. Speaker: I have a statement to make about the use of electronic devices by Members in the Chamber. I am aware that a new generation of such devices is being used by Members. My predecessor ruled in 1997 that Members carrying such devices should turn off the audio function before coming into the Chamber. She also ruled that it was totally unacceptable for a Member speaking in the Chamber to be prompted by information on the screen of such a device.

I have no objection to instruments that silently prompt the Members carrying them. Clearly, many Members use these devices and they serve a useful purpose, provided that they are unobtrusive. But I am not prepared to accept the use of electronic devices to communicate outside the Chamber nor to act as an aide-memoire by a Member participating in proceedings. This also applies to the wearing of earpieces used to receive messages—[Interruption.] Order.

In future, the Chair will order a Member seen to be using such an electronic device while speaking to resume his or her seat immediately. That ruling will be applied in Westminster Hall and in Standing Committee. Seated Members who disregard my ruling and use devices actively to communicate outside the Chamber will be asked to leave the Chamber forthwith.

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Business of the House

12.32 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for the week after we return?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): The whole House will wish to send our warm congratulations to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Parker Bowles. As Secretary of State for Wales, I am personally delighted, and the House wishes them every happiness for the future.

The business for our next week is as follows:

Monday 21 February—Remaining stages of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Bill.

Tuesday 22 February—Motions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Uprating Order 2005 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2005, followed by remaining stages of the Drugs Bill.

Wednesday 23 February—Opposition Day [5th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 24 February—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Electoral Registration (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

Friday 25 February—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 28 February—Conclusion of Committee and remaining stages of the Constitutional Reform Bill [Lords].

I should like to inform the House that business for Westminster Hall for the first two weeks in March will be—

Thursday 3 March—A debate on the report from the Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on decent homes.

Thursday 10 March—A debate on "Working, Caring and Life Balance: Supporting Choice".

Mr. Heald: May I associate myself and other Conservative Members with the congratulations extended to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and his bride to be? My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said today that he is also delighted at the news.

Is the Leader of the House able to give us the date of the Budget? He knows that I have been pressing for a long time for a foreign affairs debate so that we can have a proper discussion of developments in Africa and the middle east. It is a long time since we had such a debate: when can we expect to have another opportunity?

Despite his notorious claim that it is just a tidying-up exercise, the right hon. Gentleman knows that the European Union Bill raises very important issues and involves consideration of the more than 500 pages that
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the new constitution comprises. One of the constitution's authors, the French statesman Alain Lamassoure has described it as the

A French meal always takes a little longer, so can we have at least one more day for debate in Committee? Will the Leader of the House please reconsider the short time that has been allowed so far?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also withdraw the remarks that he made last week criticising the commitment of the Opposition to the Northern Ireland peace process? The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has always thanked my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) for the co-operation extended by him and by the Opposition as a whole. Surely the national interest requires an all-party approach to such issues.

There is concern in all parts of the House at the tactics being used by the Government to slow down information requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That is in sharp contrast to what is happening with information about previous Governments. Some requests for more recent information are being delayed for further consideration, or refused on the ground of cost. That seems surprising, given the huge volume of documents made available speedily about the previous Government. More surprisingly, in response to two questions—on correspondence with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority during the 2002 A-level marking crisis, and departmental assessments of grade inflation—the Department for Education and Skills even claims that no papers exist.

Can we have a debate in Government time about the tactics being used by the Government under the FOI, before it becomes known as the freedom of old information Act—or FOOI?

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