§ 2.57 p.m.
§ Lord Middleton asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether they regard the future of the United Kingdom lettuce-growing industry as secure in the light of the current proposals of the European Commission to reduce permitted levels of nitrates in lettuces.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)
My Lords, the position is that although the EC Scientific Committee for Food has not yet completed its work on nitrate, the Commission has gone ahead and published damaging proposals (which we have vigorously opposed) ahead of the committee's conclusions. The matter is now in abeyance pending completion of the scientific evaluation. Meanwhile, the Commission is examining a comprehensive dossier which we have prepared challenging the scientific basis for its proposals to set limits for nitrate in lettuce and spinach and detailing the serious damage they would cause to the UK glasshouse lettuce industry. The Government will 1288 continue to use all possible means to have the proposals either withdrawn or amended in a way that will preserve the position of our growers.
§ Lord Middleton
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that robust Answer. He will be aware that similar proposals in the past have been of concern to Sub-Committee D. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that such proposals are not put forward until the relevant evidence has been assessed by the Commission's own scientific committee?
My Lords, my noble friend highlights a very important point. As a matter of course, we feed into the Commission and the Scientific Committee for Food the results of our own scientific research and assessments before the Commission's proposals are formulated. We then take a full part in the discussions that take place in the various expert groups in Brussels to try to ensure that all proposals are based on sound science. That includes fielding both administrators and scientists into the discussion process.
The Viscount of Falkland
My Lords, is it not rather alarming that such discriminatory legislation can be considered which will give such a competitive advantage to other member states when it is backed up with such a small amount of research and supporting data? Further to his robust Answer, can the Minister say whether, as a result of their reaction, the Government have used their best efforts to persuade other countries which produce lettuces under glass to follow our arguments closely and to bring further pressure to bear on the European Commission?
My Lords, I believe that the Commission has now realised the practical constraints which apply to glasshouse lettuce growers in Northern Europe. I should like to pay tribute to the producers in this country and the British Retail Consortium who have worked hard to get across their message in Brussels and in other member states. We shall be looking for amended proposals that are sensible and well-founded.
§ Lord Clark of Kempston
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the European Commission's continued interference in this country's economy is in some cases detrimental to some of our industries, in particular, the lettuce-growing industry? Further, does he agree that M. Jacques Delors should not interfere in our domestic politics in relation to the so-called Euro-sceptics by suggesting that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister should resign? That has nothing to do with M. Delors.
My Lords, the European Commission's competence is well defined, and by no means are all of its proposals well-founded, as is well exemplified by the subject of the Question on the Order Paper tabled by my noble friend.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, I wonder whether I may extend the Question slightly and say that questions arise from other parts of your Lordships' Select Committee on European Affairs. The issue of a 1289 database on scientific matters has caused anxiety to other sub-committees, particularly that chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Lewis, in relation to bathing water, a matter which is to be raised in a report which will be published shortly. Of more concern is the fact that this type of proposal is not one which would normally come before your Lordships' Select Committee, because it is, in a sense, delegated legislation. Will the Government use their good offices to ensure that in future the Commission at least gives notice to your Lordships' House so that such matters can be scrutinised?
My Lords, I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, has written to my right honourable friend the Minister on behalf of the Select Committee on the European Communities, expressing anxiety about the extent to which powers should be delegated to the Commission and the implications for parliamentary scrutiny. We take his points extremely seriously, and I hope that the Government will be in a position to send a considered reply before very long.
§ Lord Gallacher
My Lords, we share the Government's opposition to this, and congratulate the industry on the support that it has given the Government in this matter. The precedent of ignoring advice and jumping the gun by the Commission when it calls for information from the Scientific Advisory Committee is a bad one, and should be condemned in the strongest terms. However, will the Minister tell the House whether the abolition of the waste handling grant to farmers announced on 29th November will help in the context of this problem, particularly in view of the fact that 9,000 grants have been awarded since 1989? If the Minister is disposed to tell me that formal designation of nitrate-vulnerable zones next year, with payment for people in those zones, will help in this connection, will he say how soon the designations will take place? Most of the preparatory work seems already to have been done.
My Lords, the incidence of nitrates in the UK glasshouse lettuce crop has little to do with the factors to which the noble Lord has just alluded. Most UK growers of butterhead lettuce, as it is called, will be unable to comply with the proposed nitrate limits. A major factor in determining those levels is the intensity of the light reaching the crop. Relatively low light intensities in the UK due to cloudy weather make it impossible for our glasshouse growers to meet the proposed limits for lettuce. That is why we have taken such strenuous exception to the proposals. The matters to which the noble Lord referred are not germane to the Question on the Order paper.
§ Lord Marlesford
My Lords, following what the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, said, does the Question not raise the fundamental issue as to the relative powers of the Commission and the Council? I had always understood that while the Commission had the monopoly of proposing changes in European law, the Council decided whether they took place. Am I right in thinking that in cases where the Council—wisely or unwisely—has delegated to the Commission certain 1290 regulation decision-making powers, for some reason it cannot recall, to the Council for decision those regulations even where it appears that there is a matter of considerable national political importance? Will my noble friend reassure us that where there is delegation to the Commission, the Council will still be able to recall so that it, on behalf of the countries which are members of the EU, can make the decision?
My Lords, my noble friend is right. Many proposals the Commission makes have to return to the Council for a decision. There is no doubt that the Commission is entitled to make proposals in this area which is a technical one related directly to the single market. Where we take issue is on the way its proposals were formulated, which was well in advance of up-to-date scientific analysis. As a result of the UK's intervention, those proposals have been shelved until a full study on nitrates is available. We have made it absolutely clear that we will not accept such an unwarranted and damaging threat to our glasshouse industry.
§ Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe
My Lords, in defending the UK lettuce-growing industry, have the Government drawn to the Commission's attention the recent outbreaks of dysentery in this country which are thought to be due to eating Spanish lettuces?
My Lords, I am not sure whether that matter has been the subject of discussion in high circles. The advice I seek to convey to your Lordships is that there is no danger to the consumer from eating lettuce. On the contrary, all the experts agree that we should be eating more, not fewer, green vegetables, including our own excellent British lettuces. The controversy which is the subject of the Question on the Order Paper should not distract us from that central message.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
My Lords, will my noble friend be a little more precise in informing the House as to what remedies might be available to this country if the Commission, having gone through all the procedures which he has so kindly outlined, still decides to go ahead with this pernicious regulation? Does my noble friend agree that since less than 0.1 per cent. of our lettuces are exported, their nutritious quality or otherwise should be a matter for subsidiarity; in other words, a matter entirely for our national competence?
My Lords, subsidiarity on this issue would not be helpful. In essence, this is a single market issue, and the single market is something that our food and agriculture industry is keen to maintain and build upon. We have to ensure that amended proposals come forward, and that those proposals are based on sound science and take full account of the special conditions which apply in the UK. Those messages have been received in Brussels loudly and clearly.