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Tim Farron: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but he clearly misheard me. We will vote for the Conservative motion and against the
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Government amendment, for the reasons that he has given. The point is that there are many good things in the amendment; the Government talk about the need for fairness and equivalence across the European Union, and that was what I meant in talking about points with which we would agree.

Mr. Heath: I am very concerned by what I heard from the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon). It seems that the Conservatives do not agree with the point that I have repeatedly made and that many hon. Friends have made: there is a need to regulate the supply chain in the dairy industry. Every dairy farmer whom I know in my constituency wants to see that, but the hon. Member for Newbury does not.

Tim Farron: My hon. Friend is right. We are talking about farm gate prices and the exploitation of the farmers whom the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) claims to represent and to stand up for. We are talking about a visible hand in the marketplace to ensure fairness—something we are not hearing from the other two parties.

A year ago, in DEFRA questions, I asked the Secretary of State to introduce a mandatory food labelling scheme, and I know that I was not the first to do so. The problem then, and now, is that without a regulator to enforce such a scheme, it would have limited impact. British farmers struggle because of the economic system in which they operate. Clear labelling would give consumers choice and allow British farms to take proper advantage of their high standards, but it would not change the reality, which is that our food market is dysfunctional and hopelessly unfair.

British consumers and British farmers are disadvantaged by the overwhelming market power of the huge retailers and processors. In response to this situation, others have called for a relatively passive market ombudsman, as we have already discussed. The person in that position would oversee the market and investigate complaints. Like the motion, that is okay as far as it goes, but I want to see something far more powerful. In other words, I want to see the introduction of a supermarket and food market regulator that will ensure fair prices and fair practice with regard to all produce—a strong and enforceable code covering the full range of grocery outlets, backed by a robust and proactive enforcement mechanism that would allow a labelling scheme such as the one suggested by the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) to work. The work of a proactive regulator would also prevent powerful players in the market from abusing their power.

Mr. Paice: I think that the House deserves a little more clarity about what the hon. Gentleman is proposing. Can he confirm that the role of that regulator is far in excess of that recommended by the Competition Commission? The hon. Gentleman has referred repeatedly to fair prices, and does he agree that they can be achieved only if the regulator has the power to intervene in setting prices? That is a throwback to the policies of the ’60s and ’70s rather than a policy of today. Will he make it clear whether it is Liberal party policy?

Tim Farron: I can make it absolutely clear. We are talking about ensuring that farmers get a fair price at the farm gate for their produce. If that means intervening
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and outlawing unfair exploitative prices paid by large companies on the processing and retail sides of the food chain, we stand absolutely full square on the side of the exploited British farmer. We are not paying lip service to one problem that is relatively easy to solve; we are dealing with a systemic problem that is affecting British farming.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that the choice is between an interventionist system of the kind that he has described and leaving the common market? That is the choice.

Tim Farron: That is a very interesting point. Clearly, in a free society, we surely should be able to intervene to ensure fair prices for those people in the marketplace who are least powerful. That is crucial. I will come to food production and food security later, but if we are to ensure that security, we must have some means to guarantee it. The hon. Gentleman is essentially saying that we must accept the over-weaning power of certain sections of the food market and that we can concentrate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I am reluctant to intervene, but I trust that the hon. Gentleman will relate his remarks to labelling.

Tim Farron: That is indeed what I am proceeding to do.

To recap, we will support the Conservative motion, but it is important to highlight that we believe that accurate food labelling should be only one aspect of a more comprehensive approach to ensuring a fair market in food production. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs, to whom I pay tribute and whom I welcome to his new role—he made a strong and sound case for his motion—stated his belief in mandatory intervention, but that belief appears to start and end with accurate labelling. Indeed, he stated at the NFU conference last week that

That sounds chillingly similar to the approach of his shadow Chancellor and, indeed, the Prime Minister ahead of the banking crisis, but I agree with Peter Kendall, the NFU president, who said that

The Conservatives have not chosen to debate British agriculture, as has been mentioned, and the wider fundamental and systemic problems that face our industry; instead, they have chosen to discuss a very important symptom of those problems. For what it is worth, the Conservative proposal on this issue mirrors ours—congratulations to them—but although we will support the motion, I cannot help but observe that it simply represents the party of the free market complaining about the consequences of the free market.

We need regulation that will help our farmers and consumers, and we need to be consistent in our demands for fairness throughout the market. How many of us go shopping and seek out Fairtrade coffee in one aisle, before heading down another aisle to buy milk to put in that coffee sourced from an exploited British dairy farmer who is paid less for that litre of milk than it cost
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them to produce it? I am passionate about ensuring fair trade for coffee growers in Colombia and for dairy farmers in Cumbria.

Of course, consumers can achieve a lot by buying Fairtrade produce and by buying British produce, and that is why it is so important that we have a comprehensive and mandatory food labelling system to empower consumers and to give them the information that they need to exercise choice, but consumer action is not enough. Farmers and consumers have the right to expect that their Government will be on their side, and now is the time to intervene and to take sides.

We take the side of farmers and consumers, not big business. I am not anti-market; but in food production as in banking, we want the market to be our servant, not our master. When we have huge fluctuations in production, short-sighted profit chasing by over-powerful supermarkets and farmers struggling to survive, the market is not working.

Rob Marris: Would the hon. Gentleman care to say something about the operation of the market and food security? It seems to me that the operation of market in the UK is not doing as much as it should for food security, which is a relevant issue when we are discussing British agricultural production.

Tim Farron: That is absolutely correct, and the hon. Gentleman makes the point well. Ensuring that we have a form of fair trade for British farmers means that we maintain capacity in our farming sector and that we do our bit to ensure that we have food security within our borders and, indeed, that we contribute to production across the world. I will attempt to reach those points very shortly.

If I can crave your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall cite two great liberals. Adam Smith famously talked about markets reaching equilibrium through the movement of the invisible hand in the marketplace. He suggested that markets will naturally ensure a fair and appropriate outcome, but I am afraid that that works only if we assume that markets are rational and that all the players are equally balanced in power. The increasingly fashionable John Maynard Keynes would, of course, disagree. He said:

How many people whose homes have been repossessed, how many unemployed workers and how many British farmers can identify with that statement today? The debate is about British agricultural production and food labelling, but if we are not careful, there will be barely any British agricultural produce left to label.

In the past two years, we have lost 900 million tonnes of milk production capacity. That represents a staggering 8 per cent. drop. On a human level, that is two dairy farmers leaving the industry every day. As we have heard, the British pig industry has shrunk by 40 per cent. in a decade. We now import 81 per cent. of our bacon and 45 per cent. of other pork products. Some 70 per cent. of that imported pork was reared in conditions that would have been illegal in this country. Our historical uplands are shedding skilled hill farmers at a rapid rate. I am thinking of valleys such as Longsleddale in my constituency; of the eight working hill farms still there, only one has a possible line of succession. Not since the
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black death have we seen such a reduction in our food production capacity. Incidentally, given the Government’s decision to flout Sir Iain Anderson’s recommendations and not upgrade the Pirbright facility, who is to say that the black death might not be back on the agenda some time soon?

Of course, the reduction in farming capacity after the black death was a consequence of—how shall I put it?—a reduction in demand for food, but the Government are overseeing a terrifying drop in farming capacity at a time when the world population is set to increase by 50 per cent., and demand for food is set to double in the next 40 years. Is it not madness that because of an inability to make markets work for us, we are allowing ourselves to become dependent on environmentally damaging imports—on the produce of developing countries that ought to be concentrating on feeding their own impoverished populations?

Mr. Drew: I shall be brief. Despite my feelings about the EU, I point out that surely at the core of the issue are the World Trade Organisation rules. The whole point about those rules is that they are rigged in favour of big farmers who produce genetically modified organisms. Surely that is something that we must fear.

Tim Farron: I certainly agree that the rules are, by and large, rigged in favour of powerful players. It is the same on the international stage as it is here on the British stage. We can talk about fair trade all we like, but we will mean it only if we are prepared to take action on the issue. That is why a supermarket regulator is so important.

Surely it is madness if our inability to make the market work for us means that we allow our food capacity to drop like a stone. The Government are presiding over a reduction in food production capacity, but can they not even at this stage learn the lessons from the Conservative failures of the 1980s, when the Conservatives allowed much of our manufacturing industry to disappear? The foolishness of that is only too apparent now. It is not too late for the Government to intervene to support British agriculture and ensure security of food production, world-class environmental and animal welfare standards, and a thriving future for our farmers. Introducing a mandatory labelling scheme is one step that they could take, and I appeal to them to do so.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that although there is no time limit on Back Benchers’ speeches tonight, time is running out. It would be a good idea for all hon. Members who want to catch my eye to bear in mind the amount of time left, so that we can allow as many colleagues as possible to contribute.

8.53 pm

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am glad to have caught your eye, given the number of Labour Back Benchers who want to speak. Like the Minister, I want to speak about two aspects of the motion: the specifics of the case for mandatory labelling, and the wider and larger issue of food security.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) has quite properly raised the subject in every Member’s contribution, so I want to declare that I will address that issue.

It is important to acknowledge that across the world, virtually every political party in every Government has attempted to shelter behind a misleading definition of country of origin. In some respects, the origins of that definition are to be found in the rules of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the WTO. That definition describes the country of origin as the last place of substantial change.

The public are well aware that if, for instance, someone buys a Vauxhall car that is claimed to have been made in Britain, it should not surprise them if the spark plugs in the car come from somewhere else. That would not mean that the substantial change in the construction of the car did not make it British. However, if a product such as a Cumberland sausage is marketed as a British Cumberland sausage, the substantial change, as far as the public is concerned, is not to be found in the origins of the recipe or the origins of the assembly, but in the origins of the meat.

We have allowed ourselves to be caught in a confusion which is exploited by those parts of the international food processing chain which seek to dominate and exploit food markets, rather than to pursue sustainable food markets. The misleading of the public is incorporated into the global rules that are creating much of the chaos and food insecurity that we urgently need to address. It is wrong to blame a Labour Government for 10 years of inactivity and an absence of progress.

The absence of progress goes back at least 42 years. I do not blame the Minister for not being aware of that, as it was clearly before she was born. In 1966—the last time an English football team won the World cup—the Food Standards Committee was asked to examine the abuse of the words “fresh”, “natural” and “pure”. In the discussions and deliberations that followed, from that time until last year, the matter was bounced backwards and forwards in a series of consultations that sought to secure a voluntary agreement on the meaning of the words.

In 1987, a trading standards survey looked at how supermarkets and shops were treating those labels. It found that 79 per cent. of the shops were downright misleading and 11 per cent. were extremely dubious. Only one in 10 of the marketing claims had any truth in them. That illustrates the difficulty with the voluntary path. It has taken a prodigious amount of time to get next to nowhere. We must recognise the urgency of the matter, not only because the public have a right to know, but because outside the House there is a drive and desire on the part of the public to shop ethically and sustainably where they can. In many cases that means a relocalisation of their food agenda. I welcome that, but we should be aware how far we are from such a process.

I shall refer to two reports. The first was produced at the beginning of last year by Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming. It is called “Ethical Hijack” and catalogues the systematic attempt to mislead the public with claims that are not true. Earlier I mentioned farmers markets. There was a case last year arising from
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the fact that Heinz introduced a soup called farmers market soup, even though none of the ingredients had come from a farmers market.

When that was challenged at the Advertising Standards Authority, the case failed. It was claimed that the contents came from farmers, and that the product was being brought to market, so technically it could be called farmers market soup. That did not equate with the terms as they would be understood by the public. Real definitional ambiguities are being exploited by those responsible for the labelling in order to deceive the public. It is an act of marketing deception.

Mr. Drew: I am glad that my hon. Friend raised that case. I know a bit about it, as I was one of the complainants. We got down to whether there should have been an apostrophe and, if so, where it should have gone. The problem was that Heinz rose above the fray, so to speak. Its representatives said, “Look—we’re just going to do it.” There was no comeback whatever; without going through a whole court process there was no possibility, apart from appealing to its better judgment, of getting the company to rethink. It refused to do so.

Alan Simpson: I am grateful for that intervention, because it strengthens the point that I am trying to make. There should be a mandatory framework, mandatory definitions, mandatory penalties and a mandatory time frame. The last thing that any of us have is the luxury of another 42 years of meandering around, systematically going nowhere. [Interruption.] None of us has that luxury, although we may wish to.

There has been a terrible sense that labelling has been abused in this country. I feel sorry for Patrick Holden, the director of the Soil Association, who in June 2007 found himself denounced in a Guardian article. The newspaper had put a trail on the locally, organically grown carrots from his farm in mid-Wales, which were purchased by Sainsbury’s supermarkets for sale. It found that the carrots had been taken to a super-packer in East Anglia and that by the time they finally reached the shops back in mid-Wales, they had travelled 230 miles—which stretches the notion of “local” beyond credibility. The same applied to carrots bought at Waitrose, which were labelled as having been selectively chosen from “local growers”; those growers happened to be local in Italy. So, too, with bags of parsnips: they were labelled “Organic English”, but sourced in Scotland. Watercress, labelled as having been grown by the sparkling chalk streams of Hampshire, had been imported from Portugal.

David Taylor: It’s Hampshire on the Algarve!

Alan Simpson: There are long rivers in Hampshire.

All that takes us into the world of the absurd, and there is a real danger that the discrediting of the labelling process discourages the public from acting ethically, as we desperately need them to.

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