Amendment 236A

Part of Agriculture Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 23rd July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Lilley Lord Lilley Conservative 10:15 pm, 23rd July 2020

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace. I support what he said about ending the absurdity of allowing beef to be labelled as British or Scottish if it is merely packaged in this country. I cannot understand why that has ever been permitted. If it was something to do with EU law, we should change it as soon as we are free to do so. I also agree with him on the importance of Scotch labelling. He mentioned that it began in 1933. I am old enough to remember that in the post-war period Japan started producing its own, supposedly Scotch whisky. One brand sold under the label, “Genuine Scottish whisky made from genuine Scottish grapes”. I do not know how successful it was.

I will focus on the issue of labelling, which is behind a number of these amendments. In principle, giving information to consumers is a good thing, but the proposals in the amendments raise several issues. First, why does labelling need to be compulsory? If food producers have adopted high standards, it is in their interest to publicise this if they believe the public would be more attracted to their product if they knew it was produced to high standards. Of course, they often do so, as another noble Lord mentioned in the case of free-range eggs; some two-thirds of our eggs are now labelled “free range”. I suspect, however, that what is actually sought by some noble Lords is not positive labelling about the virtues of a product but negative or pejorative labelling, or simply labelling it as coming from a country of which they disapprove—usually America.

The second issue is: will voluntary labelling work? Will people choose products which are produced to a high standard rather than the less expensive variety? The sad truth is that less than 2% of the poultry that people buy is labelled as organic; for pigs, the figure is less than 1%, and for cattle, it is less than 3%. In general, people seem to prefer the least expensive product as long as it is safe for them to eat, and that is perfectly reasonable. It is all right for Members of your Lordships’ House to sneer at people buying on the basis of price, but a lot of people have to. Food is one of the biggest items of their budget and they want it to be available to them as cheaply as possible.

The third issue is: would compulsory labelling be compliant with WTO rules? Very probably not, although there are some doubts about that. Historically, under the GATT rules, there were cases which suggested that it would not. Some think that under the rules on non- tariff barriers there might be arguments for introducing some labelling. It seems to me rather unlikely that compulsory labelling would be permitted, particularly relating to imports.

Fourthly, if there is a health risk, as the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, suggested, we should not deal with it through labelling or banning imports. If a certain type of product is a risk to the health of the consumer, it should be banned. The health regulations rather than the measures in this Bill are the appropriate way of dealing with it

Fifthly, will labelling protect UK farmers, particularly from US products—which is clearly what a lot of noble Lords want to achieve? That clearly depends on what the label says. If the label simply gives the facts and says, for example, in respect of poultry that if it comes from the UK, the maximum density under which it may be produced is 39 kilograms per square metre, and if, for the US, the label says that its rules are that, for young poultry, it has to be less than 31 kilograms per square metre, which is significantly less dense than ours, and, for larger birds, a maximum of 43 kilograms per square meter, which is not very different from ours, I do not know that that will convince people that American standards are so different or so much worse than ours.

According to Compassion in World Farming, the UK has some 800 US-style mega farms, as it calls them —for example, warehousing 40,000 birds or 2,000 pigs. The largest UK farm houses 1.7 million birds and the biggest pig factory houses 23,000 pigs. We have large- scale farming in this country; we have smaller-scale farms too, and they compete successfully with the bigger farms.

We also import from countries in eastern Europe which have higher densities and less good standards than we do, and we compete successfully with them without tariff barriers or non-tariff barriers. And, of course, we allow imports from Brazil, Thailand and other countries, which I suspect have standards that are just as questionable as anything that people fear may come from the United States.

Looking closely at some of these suggestions, I have a feeling that they are motivated by protectionism. There are two kinds of protectionism: one is to protect the position of British farms, and it is perfectly natural that British farmers should seek to protect themselves; the other is simply an anti-American hostility that has pervaded many of the debates we have had on this Bill and on the Trade Bill, and I find that very regrettable. At the end of the day, we ought to be protecting British consumers on health grounds, enabling British producers—