New Clause 19 — Regulation of food labelling and content

Financial Services (Regulation of Derivatives) – in the House of Commons at 9:27 pm on 15th March 2011.

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Votes in this debate

  • Division number 229
    A majority of MPs voted against devolving powers relating food content and labeling to Scotland.

‘In Part 2 of Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998 (reserved matters: specific reservations), at the end of section C8 to add the words “but this exception does not permit the Scottish Parliament to legislate on food content or labelling of foodstuffs that are placed for sale within Scotland”.’.—(Tom Greatrex.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Tom Greatrex Tom Greatrex Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I hesitate to introduce an element of gravity to the proceedings, given some of the entertainment that has featured so far. Over the past few hours, however, there has been much debate on issues that did not feature in the Calman report. This issue was dealt with in the report, but it does not feature in the Bill. It featured in the previous Government’s White Paper and is referred to in the Command Paper that accompanies the Bill, but it is one of the issues that appear to have fallen off the edge of the Calman process.

During this Committee stage the Government have produced explanations, some convincing and others less so, for the fact that they are not implementing some of Calman’s recommendations. Part of the purpose of the new clause is to give them an opportunity to explain why they are not implementing one particular recommendation. I note that the Scottish Parliament legislative consent memorandum Committee, in one of its conclusions, suggested that the Government provide a fuller explanation. As I am sure that its members read the Command Paper before reaching that conclusion, I suspect that merely repeating the terms of the Command Paper will not serve to provide the explanation sought by the Committee.

Photo of Fiona O'Donnell Fiona O'Donnell Labour, East Lothian

Will my hon. Friend press the Minister to tell us what representations the Government have received from either the retail or the manufacturing sector in support of their action?

Photo of Tom Greatrex Tom Greatrex Shadow Minister (Scotland) 9:45 pm, 15th March 2011

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I hope to address the point that she has raised.

Calman looked at this issue in a degree of detail. The issue was mentioned in the White Paper of November 2009, but it does not appear in the Bill. The new clause addresses Calman recommendation 5.11, which states:

The Scottish Parliament should not have the power to legislate on food content and labelling in so far as that legislation would cause a breach of the single market in the UK by placing a burden on the manufacturing, distribution and supply of foodstuffs to consumers, and Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act should be amended accordingly.”

Calman looked at the exception of trade descriptions in relation to food from the general reservation of consumer protection issues in the Scotland Act 1998. At the same time, the devolved Administration in the Scottish Parliament have responsibility for public health. The evidence taken by Calman was largely oral, and it was instructive. The chief executive of the Food Standards Agency made it clear in oral evidence that the potential for policy divergence was a concern that should be eliminated by making a change akin to that proposed in this new clause and said that the information should be available throughout the UK. Evidence from representatives of both the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland and the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine echoed that point and said there was a potential issue, although I am sure that the Minister will want to remind us that both of them made it clear that in practice there has not been a problem yet. This recommendation was welcomed by the Scottish Retail Consortium, CBI Scotland and the Food and Drink Federation. It was referenced in the Command Paper from which I assume the Minister will draw his remarks on this new clause, and it is a recommendation that we seek to insert into the Bill.

The Scottish Retail Consortium made a number of points about areas in which public health is not a factor, such as that a requirement to label or produce food differently in different parts of the UK places a heavy burden on retailers and manufacturers and could breach the ethos of the single market. A number of examples have been cited—for example, mandatory environmental labelling with different requirements in Scotland from other parts of the UK—that could place a financial and administrative burden on the food industry, and many of the companies affected would be small firms providing specialised products who do not wish their markets to be limited to just one part of the UK. The introduction of this measure would not stop the often successful voluntary schemes that already exist and to which the Command Paper makes reference.

The Government suggest in the Command Paper that potential activity by the Scottish Parliament in food labelling must be agreed by the UK Government and the European Commission, and therefore the protection is in place and is robust enough. The Command Paper goes on to suggest that this Calman recommendation is superfluous. There is a clear argument that it is not superfluous, but that what we require in this matter is clarity. That is the content of the representations from food manufacturers, food retailers and business organisations in Scotland.

This new clause enables the Calman commission recommendation, which mysteriously disappeared between the November 2009 White Paper and the Bill being published, to be enacted. It provides clarity, which is what the industry is looking for, and it provides an opportunity for the Government to deal with an issue that the Command Paper seems to wish to dismiss.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

I welcome this opportunity to discuss a substantive issue in relation to the Calman commission report and the subsequent Scotland Bill. It compares favourably with some of the discussions and superfluous issues that have been raised by the SNP during the course of the evening.

Hon. Members will know that the Calman commission made a recommendation on food content and labelling which, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, is not included in the Bill. I shall set out the Government’s reasons for deciding not to include it, as was made clear in the Command Paper. Although the recommendation seems sensible on paper, it presents a wide range of difficulties in practice, and I shall set those out. As he has said, the Scottish Parliament’s report on the Scotland Bill also sought a fuller explanation for the Government’s position. The commission made the following recommendation:

The Scottish Parliament should not have the power to legislate on food content and labelling in so far as that legislation would cause a breach of the single market in the UK by placing a burden on the manufacturing, distribution and supply of foodstuffs to consumers, and Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act should be amended accordingly.”

The commission also recommended that the Scottish Parliament’s and Scottish Government’s abilities to deal with public health issues should remain, so the recommendation does not cover this aspect, and the Government fully support that.

Importantly, and rightly, Calman recognised that food content and labelling are almost exclusively regulated at European Union level, so any scope for national flexibility at member state level when implementing this European law is extremely narrow. Hon. Members will know that general and nutritional labelling is currently being recast in a proposed European regulation. The resulting legislation will be directly applicable across the whole of the United Kingdom. A number of other labelling and food standards matters are governed by European directives.

Even where no specific food-related legislation has been adopted at European Union level, free movement principles mean that any food which can be lawfully sold in any member state must be able to be sold throughout the United Kingdom, and vice versa. Significantly, single market rules seeking to avoid barriers to trade being erected apply equally to rules applied in just one part of a member state. Any national measure would need to be notified at member state level, and clearance would need to be obtained from the European Commission before adoption. Before seeking such clearance, consideration would always need to be given to the potential for any disruptive impact within the United Kingdom.

I emphasise to right hon. and hon. Members that the Scottish Parliament is already in a position where it cannot legislate to set particular Scottish standards for food content in cases where that would breach the single European market or supplement existing European regulations. The Scotland Act prohibits the Scottish Parliament from legislating in a way that is incompatible with Community law, and Scottish Ministers have no power to carry out any executive act which is incompatible with that law—to do so would be ultra vires and any such act would have no effect.

It is relevant to the Calman commission’s recommendation that member states may restrict the free movement of goods in exceptional and limited cases. One example where that might be possible is if the Scottish Parliament were to need to take action for the purposes of public health. Again, however, Calman did not suggest any restrictions in this area. The Government are aware of only two instances where Scottish food legislation imposes different requirements from those that apply in England. First, the sale of raw milk or cream for direct human consumption is banned in Scotland but permitted, subject to certain restrictions, in England—European legislation specifically allows that. Secondly, the rules regarding food storage temperature control requirements are much more detailed in England than in Scotland. Both those differences predate Scotland’s ability to make its own legislation and both relate to food safety, not general food labelling or standards. That suggests to the Government that there is not a substantial problem to be addressed. There is therefore no need, in our view, to amend the Scotland Act.

Amending schedule 5 to the Act poses a number of possibly insurmountable problems, at the root of which is the fact that the Calman commission’s recommendation seeks to address a particular effect of legislation—that is, the breach of a single market. The purpose test that applies to the reserved matters in schedule 5 to the Act requires both the purpose and the effect of a provision to be taken into account. It is therefore possible for a provision to have an effect on a reserved matter and yet not relate to it when the purpose test is applied. Simply including a matter in schedule 5 does not guarantee that it can never be affected by legislation that is in the competence of the Scottish Parliament.

There is no precedent for enabling the Scottish Parliament to legislate on a matter provided that its legislation only has certain effects. Even if it were possible to create a new type of reserved matter, there would still be problems. Indeed, any such measure would depend on a definition of what is meant by the United Kingdom single market, which is a concept at the heart of Calman’s recommendation. Furthermore, any amendment of the Scotland Act would create a divergence between the different countries of the United Kingdom as the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland and Wales are not subject to equivalent restrictions.

To summarise, although Scottish Parliament legislation of the type that Calman’s recommendation is designed to prevent is theoretically possible, it is highly unlikely. The likelihood of the Scottish Parliament’s legislating on food content and labelling in a field where exemptions can be found from single market legislation and where any applicable European regulations can be simultaneously disapplied is very limited. The likelihood of its doing so for purposes that are not related to legitimate actions in the field of public health is extremely low.

Finally, any national measures on labelling or content where a member state may be able to act would need to be notified to the European Commission at member state level.

Photo of Ian Davidson Ian Davidson Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee, Chair, Scottish Affairs Committee

May I seek guidance from the Minister? If we have a vote on this matter, will all Unionist Members be voting at 10 o’clock and the nationalist Members be voting on the 13.14 principle at quarter past 11?

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

That is a very good point. One thing that always interests me about those who promote the time change is that they rarely seek to refer to it as central European time and the imposition of time from Europe on the rest of the—

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. It was not a particularly brilliant joke the first time round. Can we now get back to new clause 19?

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

I apologise, Mr Evans, for getting sucked into matters that diverge from the subject under discussion.

The Government appreciate the concern behind the Calman recommendation, and we have fully considered its implications. Fiona O'Donnell, who has shown great stamina throughout today’s proceedings by taking part in many of the individual debates, asked whether we had consulted the retail and business sector. I am pleased to tell her that I have met the Scottish Retail Consortium and discussed this issue in detail. I have also met the director of the CBI in Scotland, who has also previously set out concerns on this matter. I hope that I have been able to persuade both organisations that the legal basis, which I have set out in detail, is a sound one and is the basis on which the Government did not include that particular recommendation in the Bill.

On the need for legislative change, taking together all the points I have made, the Government do not necessarily consider—

Debate interrupted (Programme Order, 27 January ).

The Chair put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83D), That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 136, Noes 311.

Division number 229 Scotland Bill — New Clause 19 — Devolution of Powers Relating to Food Labelling and Content

A majority of MPs voted against devolving powers relating food content and labeling to Scotland.

Aye: 136 MPs

No: 311 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 198 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill, as amended, reported (Standing Order No. 83D( 6 )).

Bill to be considered tomorrow.