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Our plans would follow similar approaches taken in America and Australia. Both countries recognised that their consumers were being duped by the existing packaging and the natural demand for the correct information required labelling rules that had legal force. Their experience shows that the cost of better labelling will be negligible. In the United States, a study put the increased cost of origin labelling for poultry at as little as 0.01 per cent., while the EU has said that small businesses consulted would expect a positive impact from compulsory origin labelling.

Of course, new regulations need to be proportionate. That is why we are proposing in our own draft Bill that the regulations will require the labelling of meat ingredients when they represent 10 per cent. or more of a product. So, for example, a typical ready meal would be covered, as most consumers would expect, but not a pepperoni pizza—unless the manufacturer decided otherwise. I believe that this proposal strikes the right balance between the consumer interest and what is practicable.

In their amendment for tonight’s debate and elsewhere, the Government have claimed that what we are proposing, even if desirable, is not possible under EU law. We disagree. Our Bill is not about restricting trade. It will simply require UK processors and retailers to label their products appropriately. Under EU regulations on the marketing of foodstuffs, member states can require the labelling of origin when the absence of such information could mislead or confuse the consumer—and our consumers are being misled.

Ministers claim what we are proposing has been tried already. They point to a recent attempt by the Irish Government to introduce country of origin labelling for poultry, pig and sheepmeat, which the European Commission rejected. The Irish Government may not have been able to convince the Commission, and they were not helped by the fact that the British Government did not support them, but we can produce the evidence that UK consumers are being misled. The latest surveys of public opinion show that. For that and other reasons, we have received legal advice and we are confident that what we propose is permissible. I would be grateful if the Minister explained why the Government believe that it is not.

The Irish Government went to the Commission and at least made the case; they stood up for the interests of their consumers and their farming industry, while other countries have succeeded with labelling schemes within the EU rules. The Commission approved the mandatory origin labelling for Spanish asparagus in 2003 on the ground that consumers would otherwise be misled. This is about political will. The job of a Government who care about their farming industry and consumer choice is to do everything possible to put the case and, if necessary, to challenge and change the rules.

Under this Government, our nation’s reliance on imports has increased by 8 per cent. There have been major declines in the production of cereals and meat. There has been a widening food, drink and feed deficit, which stands at more than £14 billion. The pendulum has been allowed to swing too far away from domestic production. Using imports as a substitute for produce that could perfectly well be grown here is a waste of potential. Increasing self-sufficiency in the food we can produce ourselves should be a strategic priority.

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Of course food security must not be an argument for a retreat into protectionism or central planning, but we need properly to assess the role that we want our farmers to play. Conservative Members want to enable our farmers to do what they can do best: produce high-quality food and respond to consumer demand. They cannot do that effectively if the rules governing labelling leave them disadvantaged in the marketplace. Compulsory country of origin labelling is right for Britain and with the EU negotiations under way, now is the time to take a stand.

The Government’s plan for a voluntary agreement on food labelling with retailers has passed its sell-by date, and they must stand up for British consumers and farmers. Other EU countries fight for the interests of their consumers and their farming industries within the trading rules. It is time for the British Government to show the same spine. It is time to end misleading labelling and to enable consumers to choose British food with confidence.

8.1 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:

I am grateful to the official Opposition for initiating the debate today. After all, it is national potato day and pancake Tuesday, so it is appropriate that we are having the debate. I depart from the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), as I think this is an interesting debate, and I welcome the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) to his new post. I hope that he enjoys a long and happy career as Opposition spokesman. If his performance today is anything to go by, he will do extremely well. I look forward to crossing swords with him on many occasions.

I wrote to the hon. Gentleman about this, but may I express apologies from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is out of the country and unable to return for the debate? As the hon. Gentleman will know from his visit to the National Farmers Union conference last week, agricultural production and the sustainability of that production are a hot topic in discussions in the industry. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his speech to the NFU:

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I shall address the debate rather narrowly, although there are many issues that we could discuss under its title. I think that it would be helpful to the House if I addressed some of the immediate points, particularly around the issue of labelling.

We take agricultural production very seriously and we want British farmers to produce as much food as possible. That is not about targets for domestic production or self-sufficiency. We are a trading nation. Some of the food that we grow we export—nearly £12 billion-worth in 2007. The food that we import—mainly things that we cannot grow here—is really important too. This is about productive, efficient farming, the higher yielding seeds, better irrigation and more sustainable use of fertilisers that have transformed agriculture in parts of the world.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): The Minister talks about trading freely, but what about trading fairly? If production methods used on the continent are illegal here but give our opponents an advantage, surely people should be made aware of that.

Jane Kennedy: I agree with the hon. Gentleman—indeed, I agree with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs—but there are points of difference, which I wish to explore and explain. I have read the Conservative proposals in detail and they form a well-written document, if I might be allowed to say so, but I have some quite stringent criticisms to make of it, which I will come to.

In meeting demand today, we must ensure that we do not destroy our ability to feed ourselves tomorrow. This is not about either environmental sustainability or production; it has to be both. The general public are becoming increasingly interested in the issue of labelling and the origin of foods, and I agree with the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs that the public should have confidence in the labelling system, so that when they make the choice to buy British, for whatever reason—if they want to support British farming, for whatever purpose—they know that they are buying British produce.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The Minister will know that some of the best arable livestock and some of the best dairy farming in the UK are to be found in Shropshire, but the best way to pay tribute to Shropshire farmers is to support the motion and allow transparency so that UK customers, and indeed European customers, can make an informed choice about buying British, which includes Shropshire.

Jane Kennedy: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about Shropshire, but in a moment I will come to why there are distinct and real differences between the positions described in the motion and in the amendment.

The issue of labelling has recently been played out in the media, too, and the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs was right to highlight Jamie Oliver’s investigation of pig welfare standards in Europe. The programme was broadcast in January and the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and I participated in it, although it was filmed a little while ago. As I said to the NFU conference, Jamie Oliver is to be congratulated on shining the spotlight on
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an area that deserves to be brought into focus. I hope that today’s debate will continue to raise awareness and improve the public’s understanding of the issue.

My views and those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are perfectly clear: we want people to be able to buy British and to support British farmers. The British public care about what they eat. Imported food is good and important for variety. It also reflects the cultural diversity of the UK, but by buying British, consumers support the industry and, especially in the pig industry, higher welfare standards. The Conservative party passed the key welfare standard change—the abolition of sow stalls. We implemented that change, which means that our pig farmers are right when they say that they are at a disadvantage. That is why the Select Committee report that examined the issue so carefully and in such detail was so timely. Its conclusions are important.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): The Minister will be aware that none of the bacon fed to our troops is British. What discussions has she had with the Ministry of Defence and her colleagues there to ensure that that changes?

Jane Kennedy: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will come to that point in a little while. I agree, and I have said on a number of occasions that we are improving the ability of the public sector to use its power to support British farming. However, there is further work to do and I am engaged in it. Later in my speech, I will describe exactly what we are doing.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): The Minister will be aware that 10 years ago I introduced a private Member’s Bill on this very subject. What is really causing me concern is the fact that she does not seem to exhibit even a frisson of concern that, for 10 years, the Government have not only been trying, but have been warned of the consequences of the disadvantage being deliberately placed in the way of British pig farmers. The competition have had derogations and been able to flood our market with cheaper-sourced meats. That is unacceptable. Surely she must recognise that now is the time to act, not to speak.

Jane Kennedy: As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) said, the issues facing pig farmers go far wider than labelling. That is why the approach that I am taking—bringing the stakeholders around the table to talk about the range of issues that need to be identified—will allow us to work out a programme of action that I believe will achieve improved confidence in our pig industry, which is what the representatives of the industry say they want to achieve.

Andrew George: Does the Minister accept that her stated objective of encouraging, or indeed enabling, consumers to purchase British-produced goods is closely linked to the Competition Commission’s inquiry into supermarkets? If farmers and growers cannot maintain viable business structures because of the way in which the supermarkets treat them through the supply chain, that desirable objective simply cannot, over time, be fulfilled. What does the Minister’s Department say, and
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what does she say, in response to the commission’s inquiry, and is she taking the issue up with her colleagues in other Departments?

Jane Kennedy: As the hon. Gentleman says, the Competition Commissioner will report to my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. However, I am taking a close interest in the issue. I have asked for up-to-date advice so that I can ensure that the commissioner’s recommendations can be pursued with the full seriousness that they deserve.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I ask the Minister to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), who referred to fairness? If fairness were displayed to our farmers, they could not only produce more wholesome United Kingdom food, but produce more from the land, which is good for the consumer. Moreover, they would have the money that they need in order to maintain the countryside that is so important to us.

Jane Kennedy: I agree that fairness is extremely important, and that is why the Competition Commissioner’s recommendations are so important. They address what is a clearly defined imbalance of power between the retailers at one end of the food supply chain and the producers at the other. That returns us to a point made earlier about the need to ensure the security of the whole food supply chain. Although we are focusing on labelling tonight, I consider it incumbent on me to examine all the other factors in detail. We need a programme of action to deal with those factors as quickly as possible, so that we need not wait for movement on the European Union’s part and can do what we can within the United Kingdom first.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The right hon. Lady said that the problems facing the pork sector were not all to do with labelling, and that is clearly true. However, does she remember telling Jamie Oliver that misleading labelling was a disgrace, and does she remember undertaking to meet the challenge of remedying that problem? She seems to be backing away from that, and trying to downplay the importance of labelling.

Jane Kennedy: On the contrary. I shall now set out what I consider to be the difference between our wish to conduct a practical search for real solutions to a serious problem and what is, as I hope to demonstrate, a posture adopted by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs.

This issue is essentially about choice. It is about consumers’ ability to make informed and practical choices. People want to know, and have a right to know, where their food comes from. If that is to happen, we need to find practical solutions that are proportionate to the problem and do not result in unnecessary and burdensome regulation which could impose additional costs within the supply chain—costs which, in all likelihood, would eventually affect either farmers’ margins or shoppers’ wallets. That is what is wrong with the Opposition’s proposal.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

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Jane Kennedy: I will, but I want to embark on the detail of my speech.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister. Can she tell us what extra costs would result from our proposed legislation, in comparison with the costs of implementing a voluntary scheme? Both would require full traceability and the labelling of products.

Jane Kennedy: I will come to the differences, and the flaws in the proposal advanced by the hon. Gentleman’s party. Let me quote from a document that I found on the website.

Rob Marris: Which website?

Jane Kennedy: The Conservative party’s website. The document says that the Conservatives would

which would form part of a food labelling regulations (amendment) Bill.

I accept that the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs has received legal advice. It has been published, and I have read it with interest. However, according to legal advice that I received as recently as today in order to test the ideas presented by the Conservatives, the hon. Gentleman’s proposal is certain—not almost certain—to fail the legal test that the European Commission would set.

Nick Herbert rose—

Jane Kennedy: Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to explain the basis of that legal advice before I give way? His proposal is very widely drawn. It attempts to encompass all meat and meat products. Does he accept that, while our aim is broadly the same, we in government must plot a course that will genuinely bring about change for the better, rather than leading to the raising of false hopes among livestock farmers and easy wins in the short term? That could happen tomorrow, if only the political will were brought to bear. The hon. Gentleman has used that phrase twice, once to the National Farmers Union and once here today.

Rob Marris: In the interests of consumers such as ourselves, could my right hon. Friend publish the legal advice that the Government have obtained?

Jane Kennedy: I will investigate the options. I certainly want to share as much of it as I can with the taskforce with which I shall be working early in March.

Nick Herbert: Will the Minister give way?

Jane Kennedy: Yes, because I said that I would.

Nick Herbert: I am grateful to the Minister. She has cited legal advice which I hope she will publish, but why have the Government not proposed a country of origin labelling scheme to the European Commission? That would enable us to hear the Commission’s view on the merits of such a scheme. Is it not clear that EU legislation enables a country of origin labelling scheme to be adopted domestically when consumers are being misled? Surely the Minister agrees that consumers are being seriously misled, so why is she not trying to put that point to the Commission?

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