I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is my fourth attempt to bring in a Bill to amend the Food Labelling Regulations 1996 and my first opportunity, after seven years of trying, to get a Second Reading debate. I am therefore very pleased to have this opportunity today. My Bill seeks to amend those regulations to provide for information about the country of origin of food to be made available to consumers. That is it; I am not trying to restrict imports from anywhere.
I am not trying to prevent people who love Spanish chorizo from buying as much of it as they want. I am not trying to prevent people who want genuine German wurst from buying it by the Mercedes Benz truck load and importing it into this country to sell to all the people who want to buy it. I am not trying to prevent those who are partial to kangaroo meat from buying that, either. According to the website of J. M. Danslow, a quality butcher in Gravesend, kangaroo meat is
“used by some of the world’s best restaurants because of its high quality and unique flavour.”
Those who are partial to kangaroo meat have nothing to fear from my Bill. Those who like bison, which is
“the most flavoured red meat available to today’s consumer …nutritious, tender and easy to prepare”,
can also set their minds at rest.
Likewise, no one who likes eating reindeer meat, which according to Danslow is
“fine-fibred, tender and lean”
as well as being
“rich in vitamin A, vitamin E and all vitamins B”,
has any cause for concern. I might add that there are other concerns about reindeer meat, as the Swedish store Ikea found to its cost a couple of years ago when it started selling salami made from reindeer in its UK stores at Christmas time. The idea that Rudolf’s big thank you for helping Santa to deliver all his presents in double-quick time was to be chopped up and turned into salami for the Christmas dinner table was a little too much for the nation’s children and their parents to bear. But, if there are still any secret reindeer meat eaters out there following that debacle, they have nothing to fear from my Bill.
My Bill seeks to do one thing: I just want consumers to know where meat comes from. I want them to know, not to think or to guess or to hope. If producers say on the label that meat is British, it should actually be British. I have set out this argument in the House on four previous occasions: on 22 March 2004; on 29 October 2008; and in a slightly different Bill on 17 March 2009, which is identical to the Bill that I asked the Leader of the House to introduce on 11 January 2011. So I will not detain the House for very long.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend has set out his arguments in the House before, but I and other Members who are present today were not here on those occasions, and we would very much welcome listening to those arguments in some detail.
I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I will set out a précis of the arguments for his benefit and for that of other Members. I do not want to dwell on them at length, however, because I also need to explore the aspects of European law that are unjustifiably held to be fatal to the Bill.
I was saying that the Food Labelling Regulations (Amendment) Bill that I introduced in 2009 is worth some attention, particularly because of its sponsors. I reiterate that that Bill is identical to today’s Bill, save for the names of the sponsors. My 2009 Bill had a range of sponsors from different parties, including my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who I am delighted to see sitting in his place today. It is a great pleasure for me to be able to introduce a Bill that I know has the support of two people who are now Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
I do not wish to detain the House by talking about the cheating that goes on, but I will briefly summarise the problem. The current rules do not do the job adequately, and consumers continue to be misled. In the case of certain foodstuffs, no indication need be given that the product is made with imported meat. Examples include the Tesco chicken dinner in its range of children’s meals, which simply states “Produced in the UK”, although the chicken actually comes from Thailand. Sometimes a phrase will be used to imply the country of origin. For example, items from the Bird’s Eye Great British Menu range turn out, on closer inspection, to contain imported meat. At present, producers of imported meat can lawfully use the Union flag on packaging to imply that a product is British, even when it is not, and they do so. They can, and do, import meat from overseas, package it here and say that it has been produced in the UK.
There are not many people out there who disagree with what I am saying about the need to address the problem. An ICM poll for the Honest Food campaign showed that 87% of consumers in the survey believe that the Government should ensure that the country of origin is clearly shown on food products. The survey also showed that 89% believe that when a product such as sausages or bacon is labelled as “British” or “produced in the UK”, it should mean that the sausages or bacon are from an animal reared in Britain.
The right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) is a sponsor of the Bill. When he was an Agriculture Minister 12 years ago in 1999, he told us:
“I want to give clear unambiguous information on the real place of origin, not place of processing or place of slicing; I want to clamp down on misleading place of origin descriptions”.—[Official Report, 28 October 1999; Vol. 366, c. 1126.]
In the last Labour Administration, the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said:
“A pork pie made in Britain from Danish pork can legitimately be labelled as a British pork pie”.
“That’s nonsense, and it needs to change.”
I agree, and so did the farming Minister at the time, Jane Kennedy, who was then the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree—and she is, I might add, very much missed. She appeared on the excellent Channel 4 programme, “Jamie Saves our Bacon”, and told Jamie Oliver that misleading labelling was “a disgrace”. Once again, I agree.
Some progress has been made with voluntary codes, but they are voluntary. As I said in seeking leave to bring in this Bill, significant concerns persist about the effectiveness of voluntary agreements, while the demand for mandatory country-of-origin labelling continues to grow. Helen Ferrier, the chief science and regulatory affairs officer for the National Farmers Union said of the guidance from the British Retail Consortium:
“Unless all companies sign up and then consistently stick to their promises, some consumers will still be misled.”
Alice Barnard, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance also welcomed the guidance and urged food organisations to sign up to its standards, but she also lamented:
“The code is not mandatory, which would offer further protection still.”
At the annual general meeting of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes in 2010, a resolution calling for the mandatory, clear labelling of food with its true country of origin was passed unanimously. The Minister might like to reflect that this is an organisation not to be trifled with, as a former Prime Minister found out to his cost. The chair of the Women’s Institute, Ruth Bond said:
“We know that consumers want to make informed choices, and surely it is not right that consumers remain dependent on the goodwill of retailers signing up to a voluntary scheme. Without legislation there is no guarantee that consumers will get the choice and information they are demanding.”
Let me turn to deal briefly with the Bill. It is a very short Bill of two clauses, including the “Short title and commencement”, so I suppose it is what most of us would call a one-clause Bill. It provides definitions of meat products under the rubric of “Country of origin labelling”. More extended provisions explain in more detail the definition of “Meat component” and the circumstances in which the word “British” can be used—or where it cannot:
“No meat product may be labelled ‘British’ unless the animal from which the meat was derived was born, reared and slaughtered in the United Kingdom.”
The key issue I want to devote most of my time to exploring is whether there are fatal flaws in the Bill because of European Union law. Some people believe that to be the case, but I am not sure that it is. Let me start by pointing out the terms of the EC directive—the original directive 2000/13/EC. It states in paragraph (6) of the preamble:
“The prime consideration for any rules on the labelling of foodstuffs should be the need to inform and protect the consumer.”
Paragraph (8) continues:
“Detailed labelling, in particular giving the exact nature and characteristics of the product, which enables the consumer to make his choice in full knowledge of the facts is the most appropriate”—
and now we come to the most interesting bit—
“since it creates the fewest obstacles to free trade.”
More detailed labelling means fewer obstacles to free trade. Paragraph (14) of the preamble continues:
“The rules on labelling should also prohibit the use of information that would mislead the purchaser”.
Moving on from the preamble to the articles, article 2 states quite clearly in the first paragraph:
“The labelling and methods used must not…be such as could mislead the purchaser to a material degree”.
All over the directive, it is perfectly clear that the purpose is to protect the interests of consumers.
It is not at all obvious therefore that what I am doing—it could easily be argued that I am simply trying to transpose into UK law, albeit more effectively than hitherto, the requirements of this directive—is in any sense contrary to European law. However, I accept that there is an argument to be had. My contention is that this is about consumer choice, not about restricting markets in any way.
In order to make the point in more detail, let me turn to the leading text on the free movement of goods. It is the fourth edition of “Free Movement of Goods in the European Community: under Articles 28 to 30 of the EC Treaty”, by Mr Peter Oliver. As it makes clear, an extant jurisprudence offers a considerable opportunity for complex discussion. It states:
“Article 28 (formerly article 30) provides: ‘Quantitative restrictions on imports and exports and all measures having equivalent effect shall…be prohibited between Member States…the concept of measures of equivalent effect to quantitative restrictions differs from quantitative restrictions themselves in that it is considerably wider and more complex.”
In other words, it is quite possible that even if someone was not trying—as I am not trying—to restrict the imports of goods by providing that meat sold here must be accurately labelled, that could be the equivalent effect although it was not the intention, and article 28 prohibits measures that have the effect of quantitative restrictions.
I strongly support my hon. Friend’s Bill, but I wonder what other countries in the EU do. It is difficult to imagine the French, for instance, tolerating the position that exists in this country, and they are better at protecting their own meat market. Perhaps my hon. Friend can enlighten the House.
I will. I shall be citing a number of cases that have been heard in the European courts, which illustrate that not just the French but many other countries have come up against these issues and that there is a developed jurisprudence.
As Peter Oliver says in his book,
“in determining whether a particular measure falls under Article 28…it is imperative to proceed in two stages. The first question to ask is: does this measure restrict imports (or exports) so as to be caught by Article 28…? If so, then the second question arises, namely: is the measure nevertheless justified in Community law and thus lawful?”
Mr Oliver examines explicitly the question of the obligation to make a declaration of origin. He makes it clear that in “certain circumstances”, case law has held—in the past—that
“the requirement that the importer make a declaration of origin is contrary to Article 28. This was laid down in the Donckerwolke judgment, already discussed”
—earlier in his book, that is—
“where the Court held:
‘the requirement by the importing Member State of the indication of the country of origin on the customs declaration document for products in free circulation…does not in itself constitute a measure of equivalent effect’”
—in other words, one that would produce the equivalent of quantitative restrictions—
“‘if the goods in question are covered by measures of commercial policy adopted by that State in conformity with the Treaty.’”
The judgment went on to say, however—and this is the point—
“‘such a requirement would, however, fall under the prohibition contained in Article  of the Treaty if the importer were required to declare, with regard to origin, something other than what he knows or may reasonably be expected to know’”.
I would say that meat suppliers should
“reasonably be expected to know”
where the meat that they are supplying comes from.
On the face of it, the requirement would not fall under the prohibition in article 28. Unfortunately for that line of argument, however—as Mr Oliver goes on to say—
“At least since January 1, 1993, when Article 14”
—the former article 7A—
“of the Treaty took effect, all obligations to make a declaration of origin constitute measures of equivalent effect. The qualifications in Donckerwolcke, which related to the now moribund Article 134…no longer apply.”
It might be thought that that constituted “Game, set and match”, or “I am done middle stump”—depending on whether a tennis or a cricketing analogy is preferred—but even then it is not as simple as that, because the treaty also contains article 30. Mr Oliver’s book is devoted almost entirely to article 28 and article 30. The main exception, as he describes it—article 30—includes the subject of mandatory requirements. Article 30 states:
“The provisions of Articles 28 and 29 shall not preclude prohibitions or restrictions on imports, exports or goods in transit justified on grounds of”—
and a whole laundry list follows—
“public morality, public policy or public security; the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants; the protection of national treasures possessing artistic, historic or archaeological value; or the protection of industrial and commercial property.”
We could drive a pyramid through that group of exceptions. That makes plenty of work for lawyers, of course, but it also shows that the issue is not quite as clear as some might try to make us believe.
Mr Oliver goes on to say:
“The wording of this provision shows that it applies both to quantitative restrictions and to measures of equivalent effect. Furthermore, it covers that latter whether they are ‘distinctly’ or ‘indistinctly’ applicable.”
“it is also clear from the wording of Article 30 that, subject to certain limits, it merely entitles the Member States to exercise certain powers: it does not oblige them to do so.”
We must bear in mind that I am not trying to impose any restrictions on imports. I am merely trying to ensure that the consumer has clear information. Therefore, my proposals should receive the lightest possible interpretation in respect of these rules.
Mr Oliver goes on to point out that as the European Court of Justice
“held in Bauhuis v Netherlands, Article 30 ‘constitutes a derogation from the basic rule that all obstacles to the free movement of goods between Member States shall be eliminated’”.
In other words, such derogations are possible. Mr Oliver continues:
“To be justified under Article 30, national provisions”—
which is what mine would be—
“must fall within one of the grounds of justification covered by the first sentence of Article 30”.
I think mine do that. Public policy says there should be better information for consumers so they can make informed choices, and public policy is one of the justifications under article 30.
As Mr Oliver points out, to be justified under article 30 national provisions must also
“not constitute arbitrary discrimination nor a disguised restriction on trade between Member States and must be justified.”
I am not trying to put any disguised restrictions on trade between member states. I simply want information for consumers, and what I am trying to do is certainly not arbitrary.
“the Court in ‘Cassis de Dijon’”—
one of the most famous cases in European jurisprudence—
“has recognised a series of ‘mandatory requirements’ in addition to the grounds of justification expressly set out in Article 30.”
As is clearly set out in the book,
“the better view is that the ‘mandatory requirements’ fall under that provision”—
“despite the Court’s traditional view that they were subsumed within Article 28.
The ‘mandatory requirements’ recognised so far are: the prevention of tax evasion, consumer protection, the prevention of unfair competition, the protection of the environment, the improvement of working conditions, the maintenance of press diversity”
and so forth.
“One questions left open by ‘Cassis de Dijon’ was the relationship between the ‘mandatory requirements’ laid down by that judgment and Article 30, which is not mentioned at all in the judgment. Two schools of thought evolved on this matter:
(a) According to the first view, the ‘mandatory requirements’ are to be weighed up within Article 28, not Article 30. Moreover, only ‘indistinctly applicable’ measures may qualify, so that ‘distinctly applicable’ measures may only be justified on the grounds expressly set out in Article 30. On this view, therefore, ‘indistinctly applicable measures’ are granted more favourable treatment in that the ‘mandatory requirements’ apply to them alone.
(b) According to the second view, the ‘mandatory requirements’ are regarded as being subsumed under Article 30, on the grounds that they constitute additions to the list of grounds of justification expressly set out in Article 30. On this view, the mandatory requirements are subject to precisely the same tests as the latter grounds.”
Mr Oliver continues:
“In support of the first theory, it should be said that the Court has repeatedly held that Article 30 must be interpreted narrowly since it constitutes an exception to a fundamental principle of Community law.”
“Yet it is submitted that that is outweighed by the following considerations:
(a) The second view avoids the undue harshness resulting from the first theory with respect to ‘distinctly applicable’ measures necessary on such grounds as consumer protection. According to the first theory, even though they are necessary, such measures are quite simply prohibited. According to the second theory, they are considered to fall under Article 28, but may be justified under Article 30. Since the Court has now accepted that consumer protection may justify restrictions otherwise prohibited by Article 28, does it make sense to approach it differently from, say, plant health merely because in 1957 (when the Treaty of Rome was first drafted) consumer protection did not yet arouse much passion?”
Mr Oliver continued:
“It always seemed clear that the ‘mandatory requirements’ have the same properties as the grounds of justification in Article 30. As van Gerven”—
the then advocate-general—
“remarked in Aragonesa de Publicidad v Departamento de Sanidad ‘…the conditions governing the applicability of the Cassis de Dijon doctrine and of Article  are the same”.
“For these reasons, the second approach has been firmly and consistently advocated in this book since its very first edition, which appeared in 1982. This is despite the fact that…the Court had already chosen to follow the other approach, which was also backed by most commentators for many years.”
Mr Oliver’s point in this text, which is one of the leading reference books on the free movement of goods, is that the second approach is gaining favour. He continued:
“What is more, the Court has on occasion had recourse to some far-fetched—not to say exotic—devices so as to maintain the façade that the ‘mandatory requirements’ apply only to ‘indistinctly applicable measures’. Thus the Court has been driven to holding the following measures to be ‘indistinctly applicable’ so as to be able to consider the ‘mandatory requirements’ at all: a German statutory provision to the effect that only wines from certain specific regions of Germany could be marketed in bottles of a particular shape; legislation prohibiting the importation and marketing of meat products containing non-meat ingredients; and a measure prohibiting the use of the letter R in a circle (which indicates that a name constitutes a registered trade mark) unless such registration had occurred in the Member States in question.
Perhaps the most striking example occurred in Commission v Belgium (waste disposal), which concerned a blatantly discriminatory ban on imports of waste into Wallonia from other Member States.”
Mr Oliver goes on to talk about a “most welcome” move made by advocate-general Jacobs, whom I sat next to at lunch once in Luxembourg and I found to be a thoroughly excellent chap. Mr Oliver describes how Mr Jacobs
“has criticised the Court’s traditional approach on at least two occasions. In Chemische Afvalstoffen Dusseldorp v Minister van Milieubeheer”—
I think that that is Dutch, rather than German—
“referring to the last edition of this book, he acknowledged that the Court had been ‘obliged to adopt rather tortuous reasoning’ in the cases just mentioned and most particularly in the Walloon Waste case. In PreussenElektra v Schleswag, the same Advocate General went further, saying that ‘the reasoning in Walloon Waste is flawed and that ‘it is desirable that even directly discriminatory measures can sometimes be justified on grounds of environmental protection’, the latter being a ‘mandatory requirement’. He then added: ‘In view of the fundamental importance for the analysis of Article 30 of the Treaty of the question whether directly discriminatory measures can be justified by imperative requirements, the Court should, in my view, clarify its position in order to provide the necessary legal certainty’.
Mr Oliver goes on to say:
“Without expressly renouncing its earlier position, the Court has grudgingly moved in this direction…first…in Konsumentenombudsmannen v De Agostini”.
That case basically considered whether an outright ban on advertising certain products on television, which was held to have a greater effect in some member states than in others, could be justified.
“Likewise, in Decker v Caisse de maladie des employés privés, the Court considered a ‘distinctly applicable’ Luxembourg rule requiring the prior authorisation of the purchase of glasses from another Member State…in PreussenElektra, blatantly discriminatory legislation on wind energy was held to be justified for the protection of the environment (a mandatory requirement).
Mr Oliver continued:
“Although these developments must surely be applauded, it is a pity that the Court has not yet shown the courage to disown its earlier approach expressly, as this would undoubtedly be in the interests of legal certainty.”
His fundamental point is as follows:
“In short, the view consistently espoused in all the previous editions of this book has been gaining ground in recent years.”
Why trouble the House with all this jurisprudence, especially as a non-lawyer? The reason is extremely simple: I want to make it clear there is an argument to be had. Indeed, having listened to what the Prime Minister has said on the subject of food labelling, I venture to suggest that he agrees with me. He said at the Oxford farming conference:
“Food can be imported to Britain, processed here, and subsequently labelled in a way that suggests it’s genuinely British. That is completely wrong. I cannot overstate the importance of enabling informed consumer choice. Effective marketing can only be achieved if labelling is accurate and clear.”
He went on:
“I know that this may raise issues with the European Union. But the role of a Government that cares about British farming is not to sit on its hands and say ‘there’s nothing we can do’, but instead to test these rules and if necessary challenge and change them.”
That is exactly what my Bill is designed to do and would accomplish, and I hope that the House will read it a Second time.
It is interesting to reflect that the key aspects of both this and the previous Bill end up essentially being determined by foreign organisations. In this one, we see clearly that it is an issue of the European Union, and it is a great pleasure, as always, to see the Minister for Europe in his place, because he is wiser and better informed on these issues than almost anyone else in the House. In the previous debate, the issue was whether we would be allowed under European treaties to subsidise from the licence fee the production of programmes made in the United Kingdom. That is clearly an issue that Europe would have poked its nose into.
Then we get into a desperately depressing discussion about whether something that this sovereign Parliament is considering doing is legal. Whatever this sovereign Parliament decides to do is by its very nature legal although it may undermine some obligations we have under international treaties. I know that a senior judge—indeed the most senior judge, Lord Justice Judge—spoke recently about the application of European Union law and the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in this country. He rightly pointed out that they have effect only because of laws that this House has passed; therefore, they can have uneffect, if such a word exists, if this House passes amending legislation. A possible problem with the Bill is that it does not have a “notwithstanding” clause. If it said “notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972”, it would undoubtedly be possible to introduce food labelling regulations.
This is an issue of great topicality. I have been discussing food labelling for meat products with a constituent, specifically about their religious nature. Canon John Baker who lives in Midsomer Norton has corresponded with me about his concerns that eating halal food would be in breach of a Christian’s obligations, as set out in the Acts of the Apostles, on eating food that has been blessed in honour of gods other than our lord and saviour and the blessed trinity. I have taken this up with the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who I thought would be an authority on this matter. Hon. Members will be reassured to know, when they buy their meat, that whether it is halal or not, labelled or not, it is still perfectly legitimate to eat. I am glad to put on the record the authoritative view of the established Church—not, as it happens, my Church—on this important issue.
I am inclined to remark in parenthesis that although my hon. Friend is not a member of the established Church, we all feel that he probably ought to be were it not for the minor question of doctrine.
On the “notwithstanding” clause, I was tempted to put one in, but I did not for two reasons: first, because I contend that my Bill falls on the right side of the jurisprudence I have been talking about within the European legal system, and secondly because my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister tends to get the heebie-jeebies when the word “notwithstanding” is mentioned. As I was praying him in aid, as well as the two Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers who have given their support by signing the previous, identical version of the Bill, it seemed to me not a politic thing to do.
I completely understand my hon. Friend’s concern about introducing a “notwithstanding” clause, because it does seem to some to be the nuclear option when it comes to our European relations. We would have to debate whether it was suitable to use such a powerful clause in relation to food labelling, and whether food labelling is an issue of such importance that it is worth fracturing our relationship with Europe over, because the “notwithstanding” clause does ultimately fracture our relationship with Europe, or leads to a fundamental renegotiation. The question, I suppose, is whether that is what the British electorate want.
I have huge sympathy with my hon. Friend on the point about most people in this country wanting to know where their food comes from, how it is processed, and what is in it. It all gets frightfully stomach-churning when we read in the detail of the Bill what is classified as meat:
“the heart, any other internal organ…the muscles of the head, the carpus, the tarsus, or the tail from any mammalian or bird species recognised as fit for human consumption.”
Some of those bits do not sound fit for human consumption at all. They sound more like dog meat, which probably should be equally carefully labelled, so that the great dogs of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not mistakenly consume foreign-produced dog food; I expect that would cause them great concern, because we know that the English bulldog is a particularly patriotic symbol.
I come back to the concerns of consumers. We have had lots of rows with Europe about how food is labelled and processed, and Europe always seems to be on the wrong side of the argument. It always seems to be restraining some form of trade without allowing people to have proper information. I remember the great row about where Parma ham was cut, and whether it could be described as Parma ham if it was not physically cut in Italy. That seemed fair old nonsense; if a person has a great slab of ham and cuts it up at home, it is the same ham as if they had cut it up in Italy. I think it was Asda that wanted to do that in some plant in the United Kingdom. Europe goes for a tough and restrictive anti-free-trade regulation. It seems to put us in a position where we cannot really be honest with the British consumer and let him or her know what they are buying. That is important, because we have read the most appalling stories of the labelling of food that is pretty much no more than packaged in this country as if it were British.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) so rightly mentioned the use of the Union flag on food. When we see the Union flag, we want to think, “That’s a best bit of British beef.” We do not want to think that it has possibly come from Kobe, where the beef used to be very good and delicious, but which we might now worry was becoming radioactive. We need to know what it is, and what is in it. If it has come from Kobe via some European country and we are not being told, that must be to the disadvantage of the British consumer when they go out to do the weekly shopping.
When one is in North East Somerset, one wants to know that one’s food is really from Somerset, because some of the best food produced in the United Kingdom comes from God’s own county. We have the finest beef, lamb, chickens—you name it; turkeys, even. It has a quality, a taste, a melt-in-the-mouth flavour that makes one proud to come from Somerset. That ought to be on a label, and some bureaucrat Johnny in Brussels should not be saying, “We really can’t have this, because it might deter you from buying a German sausage.” I would not like a German sausage at all; they are much too spicy and flavoured for my taste. I like a good, proper, plain, British banger. Those hon. Members who remember watching “Yes, Prime Minister” all those years ago will know that that has been an issue in British political life for decades. We want our right to eat our sausages stuffed full of bread and things like that, because when they are, they taste nice. We do not want all this garlic and stuff that we get in foreign sausages. I am tempted to mention the Flanders and Swann song but, Mr Deputy Speaker, I know that when I get too poetic I sometimes incur your wrath, of which I live in trembling fear, so I will avoid Flanders and Swann when thinking about garlic-eaters.
We really need to know that information, so that we can get the food that we want, like and love—ideally the food from Somerset, where the grass is of particularly high quality. Those hon. Members who understand the digestion of cattle will realise that if the grass has the right flavour, and the water that falls is the best-quality rain, only to be found in Somerset, the meat and its marbling develops in a particular way.
There are occasions during a test match at Old Trafford when the rain falling can be the best possible rain, when it saves England from a notable defeat, but the rain that falls on the edge of the Mendips is the finest rain. That, as it happens, is why Joseph of Arimathea visited. He just wanted to see quite what high quality the rain was.
I was talking about the high quality of the beef in Somerset. When one looks at a piece of meat in a farm shop, like the farm shop that I used to live next door to, it has a quality that makes one look forward to one’s Sunday lunch. With some Yorkshire pudding—I know that is not meat, but it would be most upsetting to think that one’s Yorkshire pudding came from the continentals. I am sure that they have no clue how to make it. Where their eggs would come from would be not quite the thing. I know that I am going on to other food products that are not mentioned in the Bill.
I want to say a few words about one detailed concern—perhaps a pedantic concern—that I have about the Bill. That is the reference to the Union flag. Many of our most favoured nations, countries with which we have a great fellow feeling, use the Union flag as a jack. I am slightly worried that we might stop our friends in Australia and New Zealand putting their flag on because of the Union flag being used as a jack, with the stars in the fly. We want to be entirely clear—this may be a point to be discussed in Committee—that flags that incorporate the Union flag should be permissible as a representation of the country of origin when the item comes from that country.
That is a particularly welcome thing to do, because those tend to be countries that share a sovereign with us. We should have a particularly favourable attitude towards them, rather than countries such as France, which of course used to share a sovereign with us—I think of Henry VI, crowned king of France in Paris some time in the 1420s; Mr Deputy Speaker, you will know better than I the precise date—but no longer do so and have therefore lost out in the development of European history. One can only have sympathy for them in lacking such a wise and benign system of government as we have here.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I am greatly relieved, because I thought he was going to propose that we might get some kangaroo meat from Somerset. Although Somerset is very good at almost everything, kangaroos might find the climate a little colder than they are used to, and perhaps the fences not quite high enough. They might do awful things like hopping over to Gloucestershire, which would no doubt be extremely dangerous for their health.
There are all sorts of other peculiar meats that one can eat. I remember being offered crocodile, but I did not have it. I thought that it was more for making ladies’ handbags than a gentleman’s dinner. It was clearly labelled as not being English; as far as I am aware, there are not many crocodiles living in England, although there always used to be those stories about them being in the sewers. As far as I know, that is not true. It was one of those urban myths.
Let us get back to the serious point while I have the attention of the Minister for Europe, which is, as always, a great pleasure. He knows the point that I will come back to and it is a serious one. We have got ourselves into a situation in our relationship with the European Union where laws that are perfectly routine and sensible run up against a European blockage. Whether the jurisprudence of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk is right or the Government’s current view is right I do not know, but I do know that it has become the reason for inaction. It is one of the reasons that I greatly welcomed the European Union Bill, which is passing through the other place and which we passed recently. It contains the sovereignty clause which makes it clear that laws from Europe have effect only because of an Act of Parliament.
The reason I think that this is so important is that we may get the phraseology right—and I urge my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to bear this in mind—but we often hear about things that are against European law as being illegal. They are not illegal; they are against an international treaty obligation. There is an important difference. It is illegal in this country to murder someone, which is absolutely fine. The application of European law results from a treaty obligation that we have accepted and incorporated into our law, but it is absolutely legal for this Parliament to decide at any point to change it. That might appear to be a relatively obscure point, but language is important, because the House, if it so wishes, may pass the Bill with a “notwithstanding” clause, but it is perfectly reasonable for the Minister to say that because of our international treaty obligations it would not be considered wise to do so.
My hon. Friend, who is being generous in giving way, prompts me to intervene again on the question of the word “language”. Directive 2000/13/EC specifically states that language can be used as a legitimate restriction, which means that a label must contain the language of the country where the product is to be sold.
That seems perfectly reasonable. With regard to the Bill, I suppose that, as we are in the United Kingdom, the label is likely to be in English anyway, and English is such a commonly used language that it is hard to see that we could get the protection simply by saying that the labels had to be in English; they would be anyway. That would not indicate a great deal.
We need to consider the right balance in our relationship with Europe. In my view, Europe interferes too much in the minutiae of British life, and I would classify the Bill in that category. Whether one is in favour of specific food labelling laws is neither here nor there in this sense, but it clearly ought to be in the ambit of this Parliament to decide without worrying about Europe. It is not, except at the most excessive level, a barrier to free trade. I am concerned that we should have a relationship with Europe that is friendly, hospitable and trading, but we are getting to a situation where our democratic control of what we want to do is so undermined by the constant attrition from European law that the British people will no longer wish to accept the relationship along its current lines.
Therefore, those Ministers and hon. Members who are broadly in favour of a free trading area and the European Communities Act must bear in mind that, by allowing Europe to go too far, they might be sowing the seeds of its own destruction, and we may be beginning to see that in the move for an in-or-out referendum. I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend’s Bill. I think that it ought to be a matter for this sovereign Parliament to decide, but I quite accept that the Minister may feel that, in terms of our current arrangements with the EU, this may not be the best battle to fight.
I strongly support my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and his Bill. It would be very disappointing if the Government used their power to block it, especially as some current members of the Government previously supported it. The fact is that whatever the state of European law at the moment—I understand that European regulations require labelling to refer to where the food was last processed—there is absolutely no reason why the Bill should not be allowed to pass to Committee stage or, in my view, become an Act, as we could then test the jurisprudence.
In a brilliant speech that went through the entire jurisprudence, my hon. Friend set the scene for an interesting legal case. Let us at least test the water, because it is absolutely clear what the British public want. Indeed, I am not sure whether opinion polls have been mentioned yet, but one commissioned by YouGov in 2007 found that 72% of the British public want to buy British meat. I begin to part company from my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), because the best sausage is Lincolnshire sausage, as he well knows; he skated over that obvious point. Leaving that aside, the public want to know where their food comes from. Some 72% of them want to buy British meat, yet research done by the industry shows that 61% of pork eaten in the UK is imported. The most important point is that 70% of meat that is imported would be illegal if reared in this country, because our welfare standards are much higher.
It is not just a question of taste. The British people, who are patriotic, would prefer to support local suppliers, but we are conscious, too, as an animal-loving country of the need to support our high welfare standards, and the fact is that 70% of imported meat would be illegal if produced here. Why cannot the House of Commons state clearly and firmly that we should do what the British people want? The Minister will doubtless produce complex arguments to explain why that would be illegal under EU law, but the Spanish, for instance, have already intervened, issuing a decree in 2003 on the compulsory labelling of canned asparagus, and that was not overturned by the EU.
If we had the courage of our convictions, and we allowed the Bill, or something similar, to become law, it is possible—indeed, probable—that it would not be overturned by the Commission because, and this point has been made again and again, nothing that we have proposed would promote the restraint of trade. Nothing that the Bill does would stop anyone buying wonderful products from France, Germany or Italy or from our friends all over the European Union. In many respects, British people have been given a fantastic array of meats and products from all over the EU, and they are happy to buy them. However, when it comes to some of their favourite products such as bacon, beef and lamb, the majority of them want to buy British, so they should be given the opportunity to do so. There should be a clear label—this has nothing to do with the restraint of trade—telling shoppers in supermarkets that the meat was processed in a certain place, but was reared in Britain. That should be clearly set out—no ifs, no buts.
My hon. Friend makes a good point that food from animals born, reared and slaughtered in this country should be so labelled so that the British public know where it has come from. However, does he not agree that much of the food on which some of those animals are reared is imported, so should that not be on the label, too?
We can discuss that. What the public want to know—and let us not get too technical about this—is whether an animal was reared in the UK. Was it slaughtered in the UK? Was the meat processed in the UK? Those are the essential questions, and all that we ask of the Minister is that he keep an open mind and allow the Bill to proceed so that we can test European jurisprudence.
I will be brief because I am sure that the House wants to hear from the Minister. I begin by declaring an interest: I have eaten both crocodile and kangaroo meat at various times in my life and I am still here to tell the tale. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg), who reassured me that I had not offended my faith—I did not think that I had—on the many occasions that I shared halal meat with my many Muslim friends.
Not only the Germans are capable of producing spicy sausages. My butcher in the village where I live, Tottington, produces a “Hot Totty” sausage, which is delicious and spicy.
I find myself in what some people might consider an unusual position, although I do not think it is, in that I wholly support the Bill and its aim of introducing honesty in food labelling. That objective was clearly stated in the Conservative manifesto at the general election:
“We will introduce honesty in food labelling.”
Not only that, those very words are repeated in the “Programme for Government”, which states:
“We will introduce honesty in food labelling so that consumers can be confident about where their food comes from”.
That is the aim of the sensible Bill.
The British public want to be sure, when they go to their local butcher to buy meat, that the animal was born and reared in this country; that it was fed British grass in Britain. When they see the flag or the symbol, they do not want to be misled. They want to be assured that the meat is genuinely British.
I am reassured about my view of the Bill because one of its sponsors is my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), no less, Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary. I am therefore in good company in believing that the Bill’s aims are entirely laudable.
As with so many good ideas that the House wants to promote, however, the problem is Europe and Brussels. That was mentioned by my right hon. Friend—sorry, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset; I am sure he will soon be “right honourable”. No matter how much we pontificate today about what a good idea the Bill is, food labelling is, sadly, tackled through EU legislation. In my view, that is no reason for not trying to change the regulations, if we are so minded. I am not one for introducing more and more rules and regulations—far from it. I believe that we should have as little regulation as possible. However, when it comes to food, the British people are entitled to know what is in it and where it comes from.
I am not talking about imposing new regulations and extra burdensome bureaucracy, because the rules already exist. Food must be labelled under existing labelling rules. In January 2010, the Food Standards Agency produced a report on “country of origin” labelling. Its main findings were that consumers were aware of “country of origin” labels, although that was perhaps not their main concern. It found that meat products were the food types that consumers would most like to be labelled clearly. The Bill therefore hits the nail on the head and deals with the British public’s concern.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend, which is why I do not wish to continue my remarks for too long this afternoon. The whole House will benefit from hearing the Minister’s comments on the Bill, and the Government’s view of how we should deal with what is, in fact, a very simple matter. It can be summed up simply: we want to give the British public honesty in labelling, which is what Conservatives said we would do in our manifesto, what millions of British people voted for, and what was agreed in the coalition document, under which Government Members now operate.
For all those reasons—there is much to commend the idea of honesty in food labelling—it is about time that such a Bill received Second Reading. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) is to be commended for his determination and perseverance in introducing such Bills so many times. The fact that he has done so proves that the measure is worth while, and I wholly commend it to the House. I hope it receives widespread support, and look forward to hearing from the Minister.
Time is short, so I shall try to keep my remarks as brief as possible. The hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) will find a clear theological justification in Colossians 2:16. I am sure he will go away and look that up—the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) probably knows it in the original King James, which is encouraging. It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for North East Somerset launch his campaign to save the great British sausage. If he chooses to turn that into a leadership bid, Labour Members will give him our full backing. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), a fellow east of England MP. A number of east of England MPs have introduced Bills today, and it will be interesting to see how this one goes—they have so far won one and lost one.
The Opposition have a number of problems with the Bill in its current form, but clearly, Members on both sides of the House and consumers support origin labelling. Consumers now have more interest in the food they eat than ever before. As a nation, we care more about where our food has come from, what is in it, how it was reared, and how it was slaughtered. The Bill raises some very interesting points on the information that consumers should receive on the pack.
We have so many decisions and choices to make in the shops, and we need our labelling to be honest, helpful to read and real. In that light, it is encouraging to see the commitment in the coalition agreement, which states:
“We will introduce honesty in food labelling so that consumers can be confident about where their food comes from and its environmental impact.”
It is for the Minister to say how he will fulfil that aspect of the agreement, but the Opposition believe that country-of-origin labelling is an important aspect of food labelling.
The previous Labour Government were aware of that need and introduced a voluntary code of conduct to help both consumers and producers, but they also pushed for greater European agreement. It is helpful for labelling to be considered at European level. We support what Labour MEPs are doing on the implementation of traffic light information on food labelling. We want to ensure that legislation is produced in conjunction with that, but I am aware that that option has faced resistance in recent months.
The Opposition support the approach whereby mandatory rules are applied to ensure that consumers are clear what origin labelling means when food businesses choose to make an origin claim. For example, pork should only be allowed to be labelled as British pork if the pig was born, reared and slaughtered in the UK, which was a point made by a number of hon. Members.
We strongly support the consumer’s right to know how their food was raised and where it has come from, which is why in the EU Parliament earlier this week we supported increased labelling requirements for cloned animals entering the food chain. Unfortunately, the Government opposed that measure. A Europe-wide solution would be preferable to a measure that might get us into a legal minefield. The hon. Member for South Norfolk raised that point. Never has European case law sounded so good as when he read out the names of those cases.
The hon. Gentleman clearly supports honesty in food labelling, but does he support an extension of that to honesty in drinks labelling? He might have seen an article in the Sunday People last Sunday—I am sure it is an organ that he knows well—that called for high-caffeine drinks to have proper labelling on cans, so that young people in particular know how much caffeine is in the drink. Is that something he would also like to see?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about labelling. It is not just about food; the debate goes much wider than that. I will leave it to other hon. Members to speak on that matter, but he makes his point very well.
I will make two more points, but briefly, so that the Minister can respond. We are obviously concerned about the burden of regulation that the Bill might put on small producers and retailers. A report commissioned by the previous Government on developing a framework for assessing the costs of labelling changes in the UK should be extremely helpful on that matter, and we should consider that report as the Bill goes forward. Furthermore, the 10% requirement is quite a low level to require labelling. For example, it might affect pizza and other foods with a low meat content. That should be looked at.
We find it hard to reconcile the Bill’s presentation to the House with the fact that in the same week the coalition Government are cutting funding to the Food Standards Agency’s nutrition website, which provides consumers with more information. We broadly support the aims and methods of the Bill. However, I think that this matter should be resolved in the light of the discussions going on in Europe and of those that the Minister will be having with other Departments. I hope that the Government will do more. We will press them to do more on the issue of clear food labelling. I commend the hon. Member for South Norfolk on raising this matter for a fourth time. We will wait to see what happens next.
I pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and applaud his tenacity in bringing this important subject before the House. He said that he was speaking as a non-lawyer, but he did not sound like a non-lawyer, although perhaps his use of the word “heebie-jeebies” took him some way from the legal lexicon he was using.
I was proud to be part of the Honest Food campaign in 2009 that supported the idea behind the Bill. The Department is now taking forward those principles in a way that is both effective and legal, and I would be happy to respond to my hon. Friend’s points of jurisprudence. I can assure him that the finest minds at my disposal in the Department will be available to explain our position to him. He has made an important case, and his points deserve a response.
The Bill has come before Parliament previously. I remind hon. Members that even though the Honest Food campaign was the action of the then Opposition Front-Bench team, it resulted in 900 items on supermarket shelves being changed as a consequence of the concerns we raised about the improper portrayal of products on their labelling. It was clearly wrong to state that something was from a certain part of the country and for it to exude every aspect of Britishness when the meat had been reared and slaughtered abroad but processed here, and I am pleased that we made that progress.
The Prime Minister’s comments, which my hon. Friend repeated, are relevant to what we are trying to achieve. We are developing a framework for more honest food labelling, especially for the origin of meat in food. This is an area where the Government have been active in the past year. A food labelling regulation is currently being discussed in Europe. The Government have so far been extremely successful, by including in the current text an extension of the rules, making origin labelling mandatory for fresh and frozen meat. We are tightening the rules where origin claims are made and leaving the door open to further mandatory labelling, subject to a European Commission feasibility report. That position is reflected in the Council’s common position, which is being debated in the European Parliament.
In the meantime, in addition to existing Government best practice guidance, the Department has facilitated an industry-owned voluntary code of practice on improved origin labelling for food, which has received widespread support from major trade organisations. We will evaluate its market uptake and impact shortly. The Department is also developing ways to improve the transparency of country of origin labelling in the food service sector, working with the sector to develop guidance for the hospitality sector. If possible, that will be linked to the Olympics, providing an opportunity to celebrate the origin of food at an international event. Although the Government recognise the need to provide UK consumers with clear and accurate origin labelling, a number of the Bill’s provisions deal with issues that we are already successfully pursuing in the European single market negotiations.
However, I want to make it clear to my hon. Friend and other Members present that the Government believe that clear food labelling is important. We have made considerable progress on food labelling, and we expect further progress in the EU, as the food information regulations make their way through the Council and the European Parliament. Although we are supportive of the Bill’s aims, the Government are already proactive, with many country of origin labelling initiatives already in place. There are existing rules at the European level that, as I have said, are subject to ongoing negotiations. We have been successful thus far, and we believe that we will be more successful in the coming months.
Existing EU legislation already requires mandatory origin labelling for beef, veal, poultry meat and eggs from third countries, fish, most fresh fruit and vegetables, honey, olive oil and wine. Otherwise, origin information is required only where its absence might mislead the consumer. Food businesses can already provide additional information voluntarily, as long as it is accurate and not misleading. Food labelling rules are harmonised at the EU level, and changes in labelling law are a matter for negotiation in Europe.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has pointed out that we have a lot of mandatory labelling already—he has mentioned fish, olive oil and honey. However, if we have mandatory labelling already and if, for meat other than beef, where we do not, the consumer manifestly is being misled, is there not a case for now having mandatory labelling for other meat? If there are problems in European jurisprudence—problems that I contend are solvable—that should be tested through the courts.
I am happy to discuss my hon. Friend’s points about jurisprudence with him. I want to ensure that the consumer is treated fairly, with an honest labelling system, and we believe that we can do so in a way that will satisfy his determination, yet not be tested in court at a later stage. I can assure him that that is an absolute priority for the Government.
We have successfully extended compulsory origin labelling. We have also secured a requirement for origin information to be given for main ingredients where origin claims are made on food products—for example, the origin of the steak in a steak and kidney pie labelled as “Made in the UK”. It is important that the contents are included. Getting a regulation in Europe is a more effective way of improving labelling in this country.
Importantly, the Bill would apply only to England, as food labelling is a devolved matter. Any English law would place producers and retailers in England at a competitive disadvantage, both in the UK and in wider global markets, as the requirements of the Bill would increase costs not applicable across the trade, as pointed out by the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker).
The Government are committed to clearer origin labelling and agree that consumers must be confident about the validity of any origin claims when making purchasing decisions. The Government believe that they have facilitated an industry-owned, voluntary code of practice on improved origin labelling for food. This has received widespread support. We recognise the need to provide UK consumers with clear and accurate labelling. However—
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 21 October.