British Agriculture and Food Labelling

Part of Opposition Day — [6th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 9:50 pm on 24th February 2009.

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Marine and Natural Environment) 9:50 pm, 24th February 2009

I thank the House for a generally balanced and interesting debate. Once again, I welcome the Opposition spokesmen—with one exception—to their new roles. Comment was made that this Front-Bench team was charming. I was going to begin my remarks by saying that the Opposition Front Benchers were charming and a little disarming, although those last comments were not.

The debate has covered an issue that is of concern not only to all involved in the food sector, but to consumers in this country. Rightly, food and how it is produced has never been so high on the public agenda. Why is that? It is because the food market is changing rapidly, and people want and rightly demand healthy, nutritious products produced with a low environmental impact, from sustainable sources and with high standards of animal welfare, clear provenance and environmentally sound distribution. Many of those factors have been raised in this debate. We must also be cognisant of the fact that people also want their food to be convenient and good value. That is a challenge, but for those across the supply chain it is also a unique opportunity. We want to support producers, farmers and everyone in the supply chain to take advantage of this opportunity. That is the only way in which we will build a healthy, thriving agricultural sector.

Opposition Members provided some interesting examples of where they feel that labelling has gone wrong—indeed, there was almost product placement of Marks and Sparks, Birds Eye, and the Co-op and the farmers market in Arundel, which I know we shall all be visiting—but I think that we all agree on the main principle: that we should do all that we can to help British consumers make an informed choice about what they buy and to buy British and support British farmers by choice.

Tim Farron made a speech that was very thoughtful in places, but he seemed to be urging us to go back to the sixties a bit, with price fixing at farm gates. His contribution was well-meaning and thoughtful, but consumers will take note and will probably panic at the idea of a Lib Dem Minister pricing the pork off the dinner table in times of economic downturn. Mr. Turner, who I believe is in his place, in an intervention urged him to think again, but in another re-run of decades ago suggested that the solution was getting out of Europe. Both approaches—turning our back on Europe or turning our back on the hard-pressed consumer—are a retreat from reality.

Mr. O'Brien suggested that when Labour came to power we not only had an antipathy towards rural areas, but we actually despised them. That would come as a surprise to the chair of my local farmers union. In 1997—I know that the hon. Gentleman arrived in this place two years later—there were 120 Labour MPs representing rural seats, all advocating hard on behalf of their constituents. He also urged us to show leadership. Is that leadership to get out of Europe or into isolation in Europe? Which would be the better for farmers and which would be the better for consumers?

Bill Wiggin, with whom I have regularly debated various issues in different roles, was very angry. I wondered what my right hon. Friend the Minister had done to wind him up, because he is not normally so angry. We were urged to show determination, and I agree that we need to show determination, as this is a real issue. The hon. Gentleman also spoke up for Hereford beef, which is indeed world class. Together with Welsh Black beef and others, it is recognised for its quality and how it is produced.

Mr. Bacon raised valid concerns about the pig industry. He made some thoughtful comments, but in an apparent Freudian slip he said that it has not had the "protection". He instantly corrected himself, saying that that was not the right word, and he was right. I hope that the House agrees that the last thing that would be in the interests of our farmers, producers, retailers and consumers would be to withdraw into some sort of protectionist mentality. The hon. Gentleman insisted that we will not argue the case with the Commissioner— [ Interruption. ] We will argue the case with the Commissioner, but let us do so on a case with which we have a scintilla of possibility of success, as opposed to the wording of the Conservative motion.

Dan Rogerson is the chair of the all-party cheese group. I would have dearly loved to have recommended to him my father-in-law's pecorino and ricotta, which were lovingly made from sheep's milk on a farm nestling in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons, but it is unfortunately now out of production, and I do not have to declare an interest. The hon. Gentleman made some thoughtful and useful comments on nutritional information that enriched the debate that we have had this evening.

Mr. Jones paid tribute to the lamb from his constituency. He knows that Welsh lamb as a brand—like Hereford and others—has succeeded in overcoming many obstacles by clearly identifying its origin as a mark of quality and integrity. That is why people search it out. The hon. Gentleman and Dr. Murrison spoke with passion about mandatory labelling, but the Opposition's proposal is unworkable.

My hon. Friend Rob Marris rightly reminded the House of the importance of food security, which can often get lost in technical debate, as did my hon. Friend Alan Simpson, in an intelligent and cogent analysis of the issue from the common-sense perspective of the consumer. His speech was wide ranging: he managed to combine the car industry and the Cumberland sausage—I hesitate to say it, but they are two good examples of British bangers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South argued for a mandatory system to counter the exploitation of labelling and the consumer. There are several ways to do that. We can do it through working with the EU, as we are doing. We can do it by working with producers and the food chain in the UK, as we are doing. We can also explore what else can be done on mandating, but not as in the proposal in the Opposition motion, which would be bound to fail. The question for the Opposition is whether they want us to ignore the ways in which we can make progress now—in Europe and with British retailers and farmers. The problem is that sitting here as legislators, they see legislation and regulation as the only answer. It is the classic issue of a workman who has only a hammer in his toolbox, so everything looks like a nail. We need to use all the tools at our disposal.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has made clear, we need to help people to buy British if they wish and if they choose. For the past 10 years, the Government have been at the forefront of helping consumers to make informed choices. We have established the Food Standards Agency, we have brought into being the traffic light system and we have set out tough guidelines on country of origin labelling—

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