John Gummer – 1985 Speech on Heat Treated Milk

Below is the text of the speech made by John Gummer, the then Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in the House of Commons on 19 November 1985.

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food’s unnumbered explanatory memorandum dated 26th June 1985 on health and animal health problems affecting intra-community trade in heat-treated milk; endorses the view that trade in heat-treated milk should be subject to a Community regime in order to protect human and animal health; and therefore welcomes Council Directive No. 85/397/EEC of 5th August 1985 on health and animal health problems affecting intra-community trade in heat-treated milk.

This evening’s debate is, in a sense, a repeat performance of the one that we had when heat-treated milk was discussed on 20 February 1975.
It is the purpose of the United Kingdom to encourage the extension of the open market within the European Community so that we can compete with our products, not least agricultural products.

In 1975, when we first discussed the issue, our agriculture was still adapting to the common agricultural policy—a process which is now complete. This has brought problems to the industry and, recently, to the dairy sector in particular, but there have also been opportunities for British agriculture and for the many people in Britain whose jobs depend on agriculture.

When we entered the European Community, we looked forward—we accepted it at the time—to a long period in which we would be getting the technical arrangements right and so harmonise our agriculture that we could break down the technical barriers and be able to export to the rest of Europe. With milk, those changes have taken rather longer. As a result, national health and hygiene regimes have remained in force in the United Kingdom and in other member states. It is important that the health standards, which for so long have been a guarantee of the purity of British milk, should remain in force and that we should allow milk to be imported into this country only if its standard can be compared with out own.

A number of legal proceedings were taken against member states, including Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland. The Commission took the United Kingdom to the European Court in 1981 on the subject of UHT milk. More recently, the Commission has initiated proceedings against the United Kingdom on pasteurised milk. In its UHT defence, and in correspondence relating to pasteurised milk, the United Kingdom argued that the problems posed by different national regimes should not be left to the courts, but should be solved by the establishment of Community-wide rules governing the production and processing of milk. This would ensure in particular that the trade did not threaten public or animal health in importing member states.

We continue to believe that we should have the opportunity to compete with other nations in the European Community. However, that competition should be based on the same high standards for milk as we have pioneered in this country and of which we are proud. We want to have the opportunity to compete, but the competition must be within the health regulations that are so important to us.

In 1983, therefore, the United Kingdom welcomed indications that work on a Community regime, which had ​ been in abeyance for five years, was to be resumed. Work proceeded under the Greek presidency, and subsequently under French, Irish and Italian chairmanship. Agreement was finally reached during the first month of the Luxembourg presidency, on 16 July 1985.
Our objective throughout the negotiations was very simple. It was to ensure that imports under a Community regime would not undermine our high health and hygiene standards.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

The right hon. Gentleman is making a meal of it.

Mr. Gummer

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to make jokes about the quality of milk in this country. He always reduces serious matters to jokes. I hope that his constituents will note that a joke of this kind about their health is part of his stock in trade. It was important, therefore, to ensure that the health of our population—

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I follow precisely my right hon. Friend’s point that the health of the people of this country is vital and that milk makes a very significant contribution to that. Is it, or is it not, true that the people of Paris have to boil their milk, pasteurised or not, before they drink it?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is not very keen on foreigners, but we have ensured by these provisions that milk will be allowed to be imported into this country only from those countries whose standards of health are similar to our own. That applies equally to imported meat. We have always been concerned about ensuring the health of the British people. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that I am the last person who would want to cause health difficulties for him or for his children over imported foods.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

The right hon. Gentleman has referred on a number of occasions to the health of the nation. As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. MacKay), is sitting beside him, can he explain why the Scottish Office has introduced an amending regulation to remove two Scottish firms from the need to produce heat-treated milk? If the health of the nation is so important, including the health of the people of Scotland. why are they not being made to adhere to the heat-treated provisions which the Minister is seeking to introduce tonight?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not like to be misinterpreted. He meant that the whole discussion was about cream. [HON. MEMBERS: “Oh!”] It is important to be accurate about these matters. The hon. Gentleman also knows that there is to be a debate on this issue. We are discussing a very serious matter, and it is odd that the Opposition should not be concerned about the health of the nation.

Mr. Foulkes

Get on with it.

Mr. Gummer

It has taken the Government a great deal of time to win this battle in the European Community and to get so satisfactory an answer. The least the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) can do is listen to us while we discuss the health of the people. It is interesting to note that he objects to the intervention of his colleague the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing), for it is that hon. Gentleman, not this side of the House, who has held us up.

​ I should like to deal in some detail with the provisions of the directive. Its purpose is to lay down detailed public health and animal health requirements for the production and processing of heat-treated milk and the procedures that must apply when it is traded between member states. Although some of those matters are dealt with in individual articles, the most important provisions are in the chapters of annex A. These are the conditions that must be met on the production holding. They are similar in effect to our milk and dairy regulations which govern conditions on the farms in this country. Indeed, some of the wording of this chapter was provided by my Department.
Part C refers to a code of hygiene governing milk practice. This has still to be drawn up, and we shall be active in ensuring that its provisions are acceptable to the United Kingdom. Our purpose throughout has been to ensure that there is fair competition between countries meeting the same type of health regulations.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

I hope that I am not interrupting the Minister ungraciously, but he appears to be skipping article 3A. Under “Originating herd”, chapter VI of the directive states:

“The untreated milk must come from cows …

(e) yielding at least two litres of milk a day”.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that our dairy industry was prosperous until the Conservative party came to office? We would not normally assume that a cow in Britain would produce only two litres a day, except at the end of her milking career.

Mr. Gummer

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that that would not normally be the measurement. We have laid down provisions which, if they are properly followed, will protect the health of our people. That is what we are about. It is odd that the hon. Gentleman objects to circumstances when a cow produces a small number of litres a day. What is important is not the number of litres, but whether that milk is healthy. The hon. Gentleman should not make that kind of point. No doubt other hon. Members will observe that chapters V and VI—I am happy for the hon. member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) to make a speech in which he can cover those matters—

Mr. Hardy


Mr. Gummer

include columns headed “Step 1” and “Step 2”. This is the important point about this proposal. These provisions make a significant change in what might previously have been thought to be the type of regulations that were to be laid down.

During the negotiations it became clear that the high standards that the United Kingdom wanted to see in the directive could not be achieved by all member states, and this threatened to deadlock the attempt to have a Europe-wide decision. We have achieved a major breakthrough. There will be two successive stages—step 1, incorporating standards that all member states could achieve, and step 2, incorporating standards achieved by a minority of member states, including the United Kingdom.

When the directive comes into effect on 1 January 1989, step 1 standards will apply to begin with, but the higher step 2 standards will be progressively introduced ​ —first, in respect of milk for direct human consumption, on 1 April 1990, and then in respect of all milk, on I January 1993 or possibly 1 January 1995. I hope that the House will note that point. It means that we shall be able to have trade within the Community among those countries which have the higher standards, from the point at which they have them. It is Britain’s influence within the Community that will have raised the health and milk standards.

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

How near is the United Kingdom’s industry to achieving step 2 standards? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is to the advantage of the United Kingdom’s industry to go to step 2 standards sooner rather than later, and not wait until the starting dates set out in article 16?

Mr. Gummer

Step 2 standards have already been achieved by a few states, including ourselves. Our industry will not have to make changes to meet those standards, but other countries will because they are not yet universal within the Community. That is one of the achievements that we have sought to bring about by our membership of the Community. We have sought to raise the European standards where they are higher in this country, and to provide fair competition. We should not be defensive about that. We should be proud that that is what we have achieved in the negotiations.

That provision recognises our higher standards and obliges others to meet them in due course, but it would have left the United Kingdom exposed to imports of lower quality milk during the transitional period. Our prime objective was to ensure that that could not happen.

At the meeting of Agriculture Ministers on 16 July this year, our partners finally accepted that member states already applying step 2 microbiological standards to their domestic products should be entitled to apply those standards to imports without any transitional period. We can therefore apply our standards to imports, and ultimately they will become the Community’s standards.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

Will my right hon. Friend clarify the position on double pasteurisation? As I understand it, that is prevented in inter-Community trade. That process is forbidden in Scotland and Ulster, but is allowed in England and Wales. Will he clarify the Government’s intentions?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that the fact that double pasteurisation is allowed in England and Wales, but not in the north of Ireland and Scotland, shows that there is some argument about its precise purpose. Because we want to meet the needs of the industry, we have agreed that before making the final regulations under the directive we shall further consult the industry to decide whether double pasteurisation should be banned in the rest of the United Kingdom, or whether we should continue to allow it. Double pasteurisation is important. It is linked to some of the health problems that have been mentioned by the Milk Marketing Board.

Mr. Foulkes

Read on.

Mr. Gummer

I shall read as much as is necessary to clarify this important matter. Given the health standards, it was obviously a major concession to the United Kingdom for the rest of the Community to accept that we had a standard which the Community wished ultimately to impose upon the whole of the Community. We explained ​ that in a letter to the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee. That is why my right hon. Friend decided that, in the national interest, he had to agree to the directive, notwithstanding the recommendation that the draft should be debated. I hope that hon. Members, whatever view they have, will agree that it was clearly a successful negotiation. It was right for us to agree rather than to allow the matter to continue in abeyance.

The directive takes effect on 1 January 1989. It provides for trade to be strictly controlled. Exporting member states will be required to certify that individual consignments comply with all the provisions of the directive. Certificates will be carefully checked on arrival in this country. If there are grounds for suspicion, individual consignments will be held for testing, and milk may be turned back if necessary. In case of disagreement, reference may be made to the Commission.

Mr. Foulkes

I am grateful for the fact that the Minister is now on the main subject. Which ports will be designated as entry ports? Clearly not every port will have the right facilities or the people qualified to deal with the work that he has been describing.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman was perhaps wrong to suggest that the standards of health are not as important as the point to which he refers. Milk will be able to come through all those ports which are open to milk delivery. It will not be as for the UHT arrangements. There will be an open opportunity for milk to come in. If the amount of milk that comes in corresponds with the amount that comes in under the UHT arrangements, I doubt whether many ports will make much money out of it.

After all the worries that were expressed when we talked about UHT, the actual amount of milk that ultimately came in was small. [Interruption.] It really is a miserable life for members of the Opposition. First of all, they complained before we did it that it would be disastrous, ghastly and awful. Then we did it and UHT accounts for just 0·03 of the liquid milk market. Then they say, “Of course, it will get worse.” It is terrible being a member of the Labour party, because things are always going to get worse. Given the fact of its history and experience, I understand why Opposition Members feel that way.

The industry is happy about the proposals we have put forward. Of course, people would prefer not to have competition: that is the nature of any of us. The industry is happy with the proposals and feel that we are protecting the health of the nation in a proper way. The proposals will enable us to have the kind of competition and opportunities that we expect from the European Community.

I accept that hon. Members are concerned about the economic implications—a concern expressed by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley—of allowing imports of pasteurised milk, whether as a result of the directive or as a result of court proceedings. I recognise that there is special concern about doorstep deliveries. That is a service which is highly valued, both by the consumer and by the large number of people employed in it. No one is a greater supporter of that than I am. It is part of our national life and a system which we recognise. We feared or we were told we ought to fear that it would be undermined by the changes made earlier on. That has not been the case, and I do not believe it will be ​ the case. There is no question of undermining the doorstep delivery service. It will continue because the consumer likes it.

It works because people want it and it will continue to work.

I recall the fears expressed when arrangements were made some two years ago to allow the import of UHT and sterilised milk. Those fears have proved groundless. As I have mentioned, the total amount is 0·03 per cent. of the liquid market, and quite a lot of that is small catering packs of the kind that have nothing to do with doorstep deliveries. This is not going to be a worry. If that is not a worry with UHT one would not expect it to be a worry with pasteurised fresh milk which is liable to go off much more quickly than longlife milk.

These factors will work in favour of the domestic product and will allow our industry to compete effectively against imports. Already we have had people requesting information about how they might use the opportunities to export to other members of the European Economic Community. We have consulted with great care the National Farmers Union, the Milk Marketing Board and the Dairy Trade Federation, and their opposite numbers in Scotland and Northern Ireland. They accepted that, faced with legal proceedings and with the position in the Community, our best course was to negotiate for a directive. In general, this directive has been widely accepted as meeting all the requirements. There is no major issue on which those bodies feel we have failed them in our negotiations.

I hope that the House will feel that this motion is worth endorsing and that it is an opportunity rather than a threat for British trade. It is another example of how the European Economic Community can work for the benefit of us all.