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House of Commons

Thursday 4 February 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked-

Food Labelling

1. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): When he last met representatives of the food retail industry to discuss country of origin food labelling; and if he will make a statement. [315361]

8. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): When he last met representatives of the food retail industry to discuss country of origin food labelling; and if he will make a statement. [315382]

12. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): When he last met representatives of the food retail industry to discuss country of origin food labelling; and if he will make a statement. [315386]

13. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): When he last met representatives of the food retail industry to discuss country of origin food labelling; and if he will make a statement. [315387]

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Fitzpatrick): I met retailers, processors, producers and representatives of the food service industry on Monday, when I chaired the pigmeat supply chain taskforce, which agreed a voluntary code of practice on labelling for pork and pork products. That code will ensure that consumers have clear and unambiguous origin information when buying pork products.

Michael Fabricant: That is good news, partly. Has the Minister also met the Consumers Association? He will know that it recently conducted a survey showing that 80 per cent. of people want to know the origin of meat and poultry and 77 per cent. that of fruit. It is incredible and surprising to me that that is not mandatory on labelling. Will he push for that in the European Council?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am sorry that I have not met the Consumers Association, but I am aware of its survey and the one conducted by the Food Standards Agency, which came out with somewhat different conclusions.
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Country of origin is an important aspect for consumers, as are price and food safety. All those matters should be addressed in labelling to ensure that the consumer can make an informed choice.

Mr. Harper: I am pleased to hear about the progress that has been made so far. We in Gloucestershire have excellent food and drink producers, and it is important for consumers to know where their food comes from. Is the FSA, whose survey the Minister referred to, absolutely at one with him on the importance of food labelling, and will the Government take forward that view in the negotiations with European partners?

Jim Fitzpatrick: We are in negotiations in Europe about the food information regulations, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware. Those discussions have been taking place for some months and will continue this year, with a view to producing regulations next year for implementation, I believe, in 2013. The Government are very much involved in trying to ensure that we have accurate country of origin labelling on products that the British consumer is interested in buying.

Mr. Evennett: I am pleased with the Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant). However, several Government Departments and agencies have registered a fall in the proportion of British food that they buy. The latest figures that I can find are for 2007-08, when the Department for Children, Schools and Families, for instance, imported an awful lot of lamb and bacon and did not purchase many British apples. Can the Minister say why the latest figures have been delayed? Is he trying to bury bad news?

Jim Fitzpatrick: Maybe it is only me, but sometimes answering these questions makes me feel that I am playing Jim Hacker in the episode of "Yes Minister" in which he defends the British sausage. He was, of course, attempting to save his own bacon at the time.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the latest figures will be published shortly. Last year's figures showed a 2 per cent. increase in public sector procurement of British food products, and I hope that we will see the same this year.

Mr. Hollobone: Britain's best breakfast cereal, Weetabix, is made in the Kettering constituency, and the wheat for it comes from farms within a 50-mile radius. Why cannot Weetabix proclaim on every box that British breakfast cereals for British breakfasts are the best in the world?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I must confess that I was not aware that Weetabix is produced in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. However, that does explain why he has three Weetabix for his breakfast every morning in the Members' Tea Room-I have seen the latest advert for Weetabix in which the jockey beats all the horses. I am sure that Weetabix will be listening to the hon. Gentleman. It is for producers to determine what they include in the way of labelling, but we are trying to encourage accurate country of origin labelling at the same time.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give my greetings to the taskforce, and will he come shopping with me when I visit my local Sainsbury's,
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Aldi, Tesco and Co-op? [ Interruption. ] If there were a Waitrose I would shop there, too. All those supermarkets now have on their shelves products across the whole range that have their origin on the label, in some cases including the county of origin. No discerning shopper these days can seriously claim that there is not a choice. The voluntary approach is the way to go, and it is working. Will he encourage the supermarkets even further down that route?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for the date that she has offered me. I am sure that my wife will read Hansard with interest to confirm that it is a business appointment.

I commend my right hon. Friend because, as my predecessor, she started discussions on country of origin labelling with the retailers and officials in the Department as far back as January 2009. I congratulate her on that. Her activities pioneered the success that we have seen and that will come in future, and I will be happy to engage with her in terms of shopping.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): One difficulty shoppers have is avoiding illegally produced goods from Israeli colonies, often called settlements, in the west bank. What are the Government doing to ensure that that illegally produced and exported food either does not enter the United Kingdom or, if it does, is properly labelled so that consumers like me can avoid it?

Jim Fitzpatrick: If my hon. Friend has not seen it-he may well have seen it-I can tell him that on 10 December the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued advice to retailers and importers who wished to respond to consumer demand for information about the origin of food produced in the occupied Palestinian territories. That means that consumers who buy food products that originate there will be able to distinguish between the produce of Palestinian farmers and that from the Israeli settlements. One of the largest retailers is already putting our advice into practice, and we hope that the rest will follow soon.

International Whaling Commission

2. Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the International Whaling Commission; and if he will make a statement. [315362]

14. Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): What recent discussions he has had on improving the effectiveness of the International Whaling Commission. [315388]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Huw Irranca-Davies): Given the number of whales still killed, the International Whaling Commission is, in the UK's view, failing in its objective to safeguard whale stocks. The IWC will next meet in Florida in March to discuss progress on a number of issues. The UK will attend that meeting but will not agree to any proposals that would be detrimental to either the welfare or the conservation of whales.

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Mr. Ainsworth: Will the Minister state categorically that the UK Government's intention in the talks is not to legitimise existing activities in the southern ocean protection area, but to end whaling altogether, whatever the ambitions of the Japanese Government?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Indeed. The Government have long taken the position that tourist-based whale watching is the only sustainable form of whale exploitation. To give a brief update, we are currently involved in a series of discussions, and we will not negotiate on anything that will weaken our resolve to end commercial whaling. No such package or deal is currently on the table in the reform discussions and, frankly, it is difficult to envisage one in the foreseeable future, particularly while it is unclear whether Japan is willing to restrict scientific whaling operations.

Mr. Williams: I understand that a proposal may be made in the forthcoming intersessional meeting of the International Whaling Commission in March to introduce a new form of legitimate whaling-so-called coastal whaling. Will my hon. Friend commit the UK Government to opposing any such new forms of commercial whaling?

Huw Irranca-Davies: We have consistently made our position clear, and we have done so again today, but we do not yet have any proposals in front of us. Of course, the IWC needs reform, because it is clearly failing. The small working group is an aspect of the work that has gone on in the past year. We are not represented directly on that, but our views are put through Australia, New Zealand, Germany and other like-minded countries. We will receive details of a proposed way forward in the meeting in March.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): This is a despicable trade by Japan, which continues to hunt whales in the name of science while the stocks of dead meat continue to grow as the appetite for whale meat declines in Japan. What on earth are they playing at? My hon. Friend must also know that bluefin tuna is in greater danger. What does he feel about that?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We made it clear that we would support Monaco's proposal to include bluefin tuna in appendix 1 of the convention on international trade in endangered species and end the trade. We have not been able to get a European Union bloc to support that yet, but we are close. I am pleased that France has indicated in the past few days that it is moving its position towards a moratorium. We will work with European partners-and lobby the United States-to try, in the one opportunity that we have every three years, to end the trade in bluefin tuna, because it is unsustainable.

Bovine Tuberculosis

3. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): How much his Department has spent on measures to control bovine tuberculosis in each of the last three years. [315363]

5. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): How much his Department has spent on measures to control bovine tuberculosis in each of the last three years. [315365]

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The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): The total amount the Department has spent on measures to control bovine tuberculosis in each of the last three years is £69.6 million in 2006-07, £65.3 million in 2007-08 and £84.2 million in 2008-09.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Does it make sense to cull infected cattle but to leave the infection in the wildlife in the relevant areas, so that reinfection happens? Is that not bad for wildlife, bad for farmers and bad for the taxpayer?

Hilary Benn: The right hon. Gentleman will know about the badger culling trials that were carried out-originally the Krebs trials-and the report of the independent scientific group. As I recall, 11,000 badgers were culled and hon. Members are well aware of the ISG's conclusion. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we have to find the most effective means of dealing with the terrible disease, which is having a huge impact, including on farmers in his constituency. This summer, we can look forward, subject to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate's granting the final licensing, to the start of the six badger vaccination deployment projects. Many farmers will participate in those, and that offers a way forward. I am grateful for the support for that.

Mr. Swire: With the number of cattle being slaughtered at an alarming rate annually, not least in Devon, what lessons does the Secretary of State take from New Zealand, which has seen a reduction of something like 85 per cent. of TB in cattle resulting from the culling of wildlife hosts, and which is well on the way to becoming officially TB free?

Hilary Benn: We take a very close interest in what is happening in all countries that have been dealing with that problem, but each has its own circumstances. As I indicated in my answer to the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) a moment ago, we tried badger culling, but the ISG's recommendation was that it could not meaningfully contribute to the control of the disease.

We keep a very close eye on what is happening in other parts of the world, including the decision that the Welsh Assembly Government made. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we are putting a lot of money into vaccination. I hope that that will begin to offer a means of dealing with the problem in wildlife, which I am determined to tackle. As he will know, the debate has always been about the most effective way in which to deal with TB in badgers.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): Staffordshire, Moorlands is a hot spot for bovine TB. This week, a local farmer, Mrs. Heath, told me that 93 of her 300 cows have been slaughtered. Will the Secretary of State visit Staffordshire, Moorlands to meet my local farmers to discuss the progress that is being made towards the vaccine for both badgers and cattle, how we can stop the devastating spread of that disease, and how we can look again at compensation levels, so that farmers are compensated for the full cost of their loss?

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Mr. Speaker: Order. I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but there were really three questions there, to which we will have one reply.

Hilary Benn: I will do my best to find an opportunity to have those meetings. If my hon. Friend were able to bring her farmers to the House, we might be able to find an earlier date, but I am always happy to meet colleagues. I am sorry to hear about the problems that her constituent is experiencing. One of the badger vaccine deployment projects is going to be in Staffordshire. On compensation, we have changed the arrangements. The fact that expenditure on compensation has gone up in the past year reflects the higher values of cattle.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): The Government have failed to take the tough action needed to tackle bovine TB. Instead, they have announced the setting up of a new animal health body, so that elected Ministers can pass the buck for such tough decisions to an unelected quango. Is it right that farmers have to pay £22 million a year to fund a new quango to clean up diseases that are not their fault?

Hilary Benn: First, I do not accept for a moment that the Government have failed in what they are seeking to do. Secondly, as I have told the House on many occasions, sharing the responsibility and the cost is reasonable. That is what we did in tackling bluetongue, which was a model in my experience. There was no complaint that the farmers had to share the cost, because we had shared the decision making on tackling the disease. The farming industry has long wanted the opportunity to share responsibility for how we tackle disease. Is it unreasonable, in the circumstances, that there should be some sharing of the costs? I do not think that it is.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State really consider it to be a success that over the past 12 years, 150,000 head of cattle in the south-west alone have been slaughtered, and that the number continues to rise? Does he really believe that his current policies have any prospect whatever of controlling the disease, let alone of reducing or eradicating it? As he well knows, until we have an oral vaccine in four years' time, any work with vaccine is bound to be on a trial basis only-no one envisages that an injectable vaccine, which is involved in the trials that he was talking about, has any real significant prospect of deployment, because for that to happen one must catch all the badgers. When is he going to get a grip of this matter? He quotes the ISG regularly, but its conclusions were never peer reviewed, even if the evidence it gathered was. Will he accept that he is drawing sustenance from conclusions that were not peer reviewed?

Hilary Benn: We set up the ISG, which did its work and came to its conclusions. It has responsibility for what it recommended, and I accepted its advice-I know that that was not popular and that not everybody agreed. The issue is not whether we need to tackle the reservoir in wildlife, but what the most effective way of doing that is. With the badger vaccine deployment project, once the vaccine is licensed-I take the hon. Gentleman's point about practicality, and the purpose of the deployment project is to see how it works-there will be nothing to stop others using the vaccine, in
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addition to the six projects that we will be running. Understandably, farmers are saying, "You say that culling does not work, but what other means do you have to help us?" We at least now have the beginning of hope, but I agree that an oral vaccine would be much more effective, and we are working very hard, and providing extra funding, to bring that about as soon as possible.

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