Rt Hon Lord Lilley

    Lord Lilley:

    My Lords, I rise to support the amendments proposed by my noble friend Lord Trenchard and agree with what he, and my noble friends Lady Noakes and Lady Neville-Rolfe, have said. However, listening to this debate, I have occasionally felt the House has been transported back to the debates on the corn laws in the early 19th century. Then, as now, landowners, supported by their friends—romantic believers in an unchanging rural England—argued that we should prevent the import of cheap food, protect the labouring classes from their predilection for it and require them to eat more expensive food and that if we did not, it would mean our farming industry would be destroyed, our fields would remain untilled and our agricultural capacity would be permanently diminished. We know, of course, that the protectionists lost and the free traders won. Most people look back and think that was one of the great victories for progressive legislation in this country which raised the well-being of the labouring classes, although it may have diminished rents of landowners for a time. I hope we will bear that in mind as we consider these amendments.

    It is generally accepted that WTO rules permit us to ban foods based on their risks to human health. So it should, as long as those rules are scientifically based. It is also generally accepted that WTO rules do not, unless in rare and exceptional circumstances, permit bans on imports based on the production processes used if they do not have an impact on human health. That is why the EU ban on US poultry washed in peracetic acid or very dilute solution of chlorine is based on the supposed risk to human health, not on the welfare of chickens. We all know the scientific basis for the allegation of risk to human life is tenuous, otherwise the population of North America would not be so large. That is why the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and others, want a standard based on the welfare of poultry, not on the welfare of humans. However, to do so would be contrary to WTO rules. Paradoxically, they are asking us to set aside an international treaty, albeit for specific and limited purposes. There are reasons the WTO has these rules. First, when countries prohibit the import of goods, particularly food, based on the alleged inferiority of standards in other countries, it is usually done for protectionist reasons and not for the reasons they give. Secondly, it is extremely difficult to enforce rules about standards applied in another country, unless you adopt quasi-colonial controls reaching out into those countries from more developed countries, which many countries in the world do not want to see themselves subjected to. The WTO recommends where possible we adopt international standards, as my noble friend Lord Trenchard said, such as Codex Alimentarius and so on, as long as they are based on sound science.

    I hope that the House will think twice before going back more than a century to introduce protectionism, flout international law and do something where the sole purpose is to raise the cost of food.