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House of Commons Hansard
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Exiting the European Union (Aquaculture)
20 February 2019
Volume 654

[Relevant document: Tenth Report of the European Statutory Instruments Committee, HC 1794]

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I beg to move,

That the draft Aquatic Animal Health and Alien Species in Aquaculture (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 15 January, be approved.

This instrument extends to Northern Ireland only. The island of Ireland has only 10 native species of fish—40 fewer than in Great Britain and 80 fewer than continental Europe. With fewer species, it has fewer aquatic pests and diseases and, consequently, has a higher aquatic health status. We must ensure that that situation is maintained. We also acknowledge the vulnerability of the aquatic environment and the aquaculture industry to the introduction of diseases and alien species.

In Northern Ireland, aquaculture is a small but valuable market. In 2017, aquaculture production accounted for 1,248 tonnes of finfish at a value of over £6.5 million on 36 active licensed sites and 5,831 tonnes of shellfish, mainly mussels and oysters, at a value of over £9 million on 43 active aquaculture sites. The sector employs 93 full- time and 33 part-time staff.

Disease freedom underpins international regulations on the trade in live animals and their products. Northern Ireland enjoys a higher health status than the rest of the UK, as it is free from many of the most serious aquatic animal diseases. The maintenance and protection of Northern Ireland’s aquatic health status safeguards the interest of the aquaculture sector, as well as the public, who derive health and wellbeing benefits from angling and other recreational activities.

This statutory instrument will provide the necessary technical corrections to the Aquatic Animal Health Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2009, which are the principal regulations, and the Alien and Locally Absent Species in Aquaculture Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012 to ensure operability when the UK leaves the EU. The instrument does not introduce any policy changes.

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I fully support what my hon. Friend is trying to do for continuity, but can we expect further legislation shortly after leaving—if we leave without signing a withdrawal agreement—because we would presumably want our own policy then?

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My right hon. Friend will be aware that once we leave the EU, whether without an agreement or after the conclusion of the implementation period, the UK will be free to legislate independently in such areas, rather than having to do so in accordance with EU directives.

The UK Government remain committed to restoring devolution in Northern Ireland. However, in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive, UK Ministers have decided that, in the interest of legal certainty for Northern Ireland, the Government will take through the necessary secondary legislation at Westminster for Northern Ireland in close consultation with the relevant Northern Ireland Department.

The proposed amendments fall into three main categories. First, cross-references to EU instruments are amended so that they are operable after EU exit. The amendments modify cross-references to the 2006 directive contained in the principal regulations. The modifications are essential to ensure the operability of the principal regulations following the UK’s exit from the EU. They are common amendments that appear throughout Northern Ireland, England and Wales and Scotland EU exit statutory instruments. For example, the amendments substitute references to “Member State” or “Member States” with “Northern Ireland”, the “Competent Authority” or the “UK or a constituent UK territory”, and references to the EU are changed to the UK. The amendments also include the substitution of references to articles in the directive with references to provisions in the domestic Northern Ireland regulations that transposed the directive to ensure a reference point in the regulation itself, rather than to an EU directive. Some cross-references contain further cross-references to the directive and, in these cases, the cross-references have been followed through to modify all the necessary provisions.

Secondly, a group of provisions will be redundant or inoperable in Northern Ireland law after EU exit. This instrument makes an amendment to the Alien and Locally Absent Species in Aquaculture Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012 to remove the reference to a representative of the European Commission being able to accompany an inspector of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, because it will no longer be appropriate for such an official to attend after we leave the EU.

Finally, there are cross-references to directly applicable EU instruments to reflect technical amendments made to such instruments by other UK-wide SIs. Part 2 of annex 4 to directive 2006/88 contains listed diseases. It was replaced with a new annex 1A inserted into regulation 1251/2008 by the Aquatic Animal Health and Alien Species in Aquaculture (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 to enable the UK to amend the list of diseases in retained EU law following exit from the EU. The amendments are made to replace references to annex 4 of the directive to annex 1A to the regulation, which will ensure correct references to retained EU law in the domestic Northern Ireland regulations.

Given the unique biodiversity of the island of Ireland, DAERA officials work closely with their Irish counterparts on a range of fish health issues, especially with regard to contingency planning, trade matters, disease issues and biosecurity. Co-operation on such matters was in place long before we joined the EU and will continue when the UK leaves the EU. There is a close working relationship across the island of Ireland on fish health and aquaculture.

For example, the Bottom Grown Mussel Consultative Forum facilitates the management of the seed mussel fishery on an all-island basis. It consists of officials from Departments, scientists, enforcement agents, Inland Fisheries Ireland and the aquaculture industry. The group has been instrumental in securing the Marine Stewardship Council certification for Irish bottom-grown mussels. This prestigious status ensures premium market access for Ireland’s top-quality mussels, and it demonstrates that the sector is vigilant on disease prevention and control, maintains high biosecurity standards and is environmentally aware.

The intention of the regulations is to maintain the status quo and keep the aquatic animal health and alien species in aquaculture regimes functioning much as they do now. The regulations do not create new policy or change existing policy. As a result, no significant impacts are expected to arise from them. In moving this statutory instrument, a workable legal framework underpinning business as usual in the aquatic animal health and alien and locally absent species in aquaculture regimes will be preserved after exit.

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I seek to clarify my earlier question, which did not seem to get through. Is the Department working on a better regime for fishing in general, and for fish health in particular, for once we have left? This is a great opportunity, and fishing is an area that has been very badly damaged by EU membership.

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My right hon. Friend will be aware that the purpose of these regulations is to ensure that we have an operable law book on day one after leaving the European Union, but he will also be aware that, separately, the Fisheries Bill is going through the House—it has completed its Committee stage and will return shortly on Report. I can confirm that the Bill has a dedicated provision that gives the Government power to legislate in the area of fish health in particular so we can improve on the current regime and make any necessary changes. These regulations are simply about ensuring we make retained EU law operable, and I commend them to the House.

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I put on record the Opposition’s general concern about how the Government are scheduling secondary legislation and the limited means of scrutiny it offers. Given the serious dangers that would accrue if we get any of these statutory instruments wrong, it is regrettable that, nearly two years after invoking article 50, we are now having to rush everything through in the last few days. Neither Opposition parties nor other stakeholders can have any confidence about when each statutory instrument will be debated. Even when they have been scheduled, we sometimes do not know from hour to hour.

The explanatory memorandum states:

“Without this instrument… This may prevent trade between Northern Ireland and the EU and Third Countries after the UK leaves the EU.”

It also states:

“If this legislation is not progressed then this would result in an incomplete statute book on Day 1 of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.”

The Opposition will support these regulations today, but I would be grateful if the Minister addressed our questions about the process, about what replaces EU procedures and, specifically, about the replacement for Council directive 2006/88.

Some stakeholders were not able to comment on this statutory instrument because they needed to prioritise many other much larger, more contentious pieces of secondary legislation, such as the Floods and Water (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 and the Fisheries (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, both of which we opposed recently. We run the risk of exposing ourselves to unintended consequences if we continue to pass rushed legislation that has not had external scrutiny.

We have, at most, 90 minutes to consider this statutory instrument, and there is no real chance for amendments. There has been no time for impact assessment and only very limited consultation. Can the Minister be absolutely certain that no mistakes have been made, such as the blunder on the revocation of some of the powers of the inshore fisheries conservation officers as part of the Government’s so-called red tape challenge?

The explanatory memorandum states that this statutory instrument has

“no, or no significant, impact”.

Can the Minister tell us how significant an impact would have to be before it is reckoned to be significant?

One consequence of leaving the EU will be the potential loss of pan-European scientific expertise. We currently have access to Europe-wide research and analysis to shape our decisions. What steps are being taken to ensure that the scientific advice will be of the same technical and authoritative standard after these regulations are transposed? What additional funding will be allocated to Northern Ireland research to plug this gap? How will we continue to tap into EU scientific expertise, and what negotiations are taking place on continued participation in the EU’s intelligence-sharing networks?

Although we do not doubt our scientific community’s expertise on aquatic animal health and plant life, unless we adhere doggedly to European Union standards, over which we will no longer have any control, we will be placing an extra workload on our scientific advisers, which they may not have the resources to fulfil.

The Minister mentioned the changes to directive 2006/88 but, for the avoidance of doubt, what will replace the EU standing committee on the food chain and animal health in Northern Ireland? Given that the Northern Ireland Assembly is not sitting, and probably will not be sitting after 29 March, what elected body will take on the responsibilities of the European Parliament in this matter, as per the procedure referred to in article 62(2) of the directive?

The explanatory memorandum states:

“Whilst the UK will be under no legal obligation to adhere to EU rules for aquatic animal health following EU exit, failure to do so could result in the UK being unable to trade in aquaculture…products with EU Member States and third countries.”

The UK exports a very large proportion of fish and shellfish, so it seems important that there should be a similarly rigorous system for establishing disease-free zones—one that mirrors the current EU process—otherwise there would be a very real likelihood that the EU would refuse to take Northern Ireland’s produce in future. What plans does the Minister have to mirror the current level of scrutiny for declaring disease-free zones?

This statutory instrument changes the Northern Irish law that implements directive 2006/88, and it is designed to preserve the existing level of environmental protection by maintaining the current approach to aquatic animal health and the management of aquaculture. The Minister mentioned regulation 2016/249, which will apply from 2021, and I fail to understand some of the links in this statutory instrument—I apologise for that, but I could not find anyone who does understand them—so will he explain what his Department will do?

What are the Minister’s plans to introduce UK legislation to implement the commitments provided for in the new EU animal health strategy? What assessment has the Department made of the influence of climate change on the emergence of new diseases, the prevalence of existing diseases and the geographic distribution of disease agents and vectors, as mentioned in the EU animal health strategy 2007 to 2013? If the Department has not undertaken any such assessment, and has no plans to do so, does it not mean that we will need to continue to rely on the EU to do this work for us and that we will have to adhere to whatever further directives the EU comes up with?

We will support these regulations because we need to address the deficiencies in domestic legislation that will arise from Brexit. Northern Irish law must be able to operate after the UK leaves the EU, and it must not leave Northern Ireland unable to trade with European Union countries including, of course, the Republic. We must be careful there are no unintended consequences that would risk the health of aquatic animals or that would fail to facilitate trade, so I would be grateful if the Minister addressed the points I have raised.

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I welcome the details set out by the Minister. As we know, aquaculture is not a big sector of the fishing industry in Northern Ireland, but it is a critical part of it. Aquaculture creates a large number of jobs and, more importantly, it boosts the local economy—the 36 licences have been mentioned.

The Minister mentioned mussels and oysters, and we have an excellent, disease-free product in Northern Ireland. Strangford lough, which gives its name to my constituency, has a strong oyster base, and I want its importance to increase for the export market. The statutory instrument refers to alien species, an issue that often comes up in this important sector, because waters can bring in invasive species. The Minister outlined how the regulations will continue things.

The co-operation between the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the fisheries Department in particular, and the Republic of Ireland is of some interest to me, as it should be to everyone in this House. Can the Minister confirm that the Republic of Ireland accepts the rules as put forward in the SI? I understand the issue he referred to in respect of the Northern Ireland Assembly and devolution. I thank him for his confirmation about the process of secondary legislation and about no delays. It is important that we have no delays and that we have a fluent system that flows easily into the new devolution and new position we will have after 29 March. With the secondary legislation in place, will the licences continue to be issued by the fisheries division at the Northern Ireland Assembly? The “nothing changes” regulations and scrutiny, to which the shadow Minister referred, mean that the produce can continue to be exported, and that is very important. Our mussels and oysters in Northern Ireland have excellent health and our markets remain open.

The Minister has always had at heart the interests of the fisheries sector and, in particular, the aquaculture sector, which although small is significant in what it does. I have spoken to the local fish producers organisations and asked for their opinion, and they are quite happy with what is going forward. If we have the support and blessing of the local fishing sector—those who are involved in aquaculture, and the mussels and oysters sector—we should let this SI make its way through the House of Commons, ever mindful of the importance of having these things in place come 29 March.

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The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) is poised like a panther. Does he wish to speak?

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indicated assent.

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Yes, well then I call Mr Alan Brown.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will be brief. The way these SIs have been presented today sums up the chaos and farce of this UK Government. The one that merited the most debate was the one on motor insurance, but it has been pulled by the Government at the last minute, leading us to the one before us. In principle, I do not like this place legislating for Northern Ireland when something should be undertaken by the devolved Assembly. I suggest that the UK Government should be doing much more to get the devolved Assembly up and running, to allow it to take responsibility where it has the right competences.

Despite that, I accept that we are dealing with mainly technical amendments, bringing EU legislation into domestic legislation. For that reason, I certainly would not oppose this SI. Leaving aside the technical amendments, one reason why this SI has come here for debate is that the Commons sifting Committee expressed concerns about the legislative function of appropriate buffer zones to prevent the introduction of exotic diseases to aquatic species in Northern Ireland. Will the Minister say what the implications are for the competent authority in Northern Ireland? Will he confirm what the outcome of his consultation with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs officials was? The consultation is referred to in the explanatory notes, so will he confirm its outcome?

Finally, if we are looking at a potential no-deal scenario, I suggest that the UK Government should be absolutely focused in their efforts on ruling out a no-deal outcome. They should get it off the table and listen to the will of this House, because that will have a far bigger potential impact on the aquaculture industry and it really should be the focus for this Government. Their focus should be on taking a no-deal scenario off the table.

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First, let me address the points made by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown). This is an important issue and I take exception to the suggestion that a transport issue could be more important than aquaculture. As I said at the beginning, it is an important industry in Northern Ireland, but it is also an important industry in Scotland. He will be aware that the Scottish Government have brought forward their own regulations to ensure that these EU regulations are operable in UK law and that Scottish authorities can continue to regulate the aquaculture sector in a way that is important.

The hon. Gentleman raised an important issue about the sifting Committee, which had indeed recommended that this SI be debated on the Floor of the House and is an affirmative resolution, rather than a negative resolution, as was the initial proposal. As he said, the Committee picked up on the reference to the ability to establish buffer zones. It raised a concern that this was a new power, but I can confirm that it is not a new power. This power already exists and it was probably a misunderstanding of the way the provision is phrased that led the Committee to consider that this was a new power being taken. In fact, DAERA, on behalf of Northern Ireland, has always been able to exercise this power. That said, given the importance of this issue, we chose not to challenge the sifting Committee recommendation that it should be debated, even though we believe it may have been based on a misunderstanding. I am happy to clarify here on the Floor of the House that the power to establish appropriate buffer zones is not a new power, but one that already exists.

Turning to the points made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I can confirm that his understanding is exactly right: officials in DAERA will continue to be responsible for the licensing of aquaculture activities. The whole purpose of all these Brexit SIs is that they maintain the status quo and that there will be no change. Indeed, without them, there would be some doubt about whether DAERA would be able to exercise the full suite of powers available to it, because elements of the retained EU law that it will rely upon would become inoperable. This SI corrects any of those said deficiencies.

Finally, let me address the comments made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin). He asked what we will do when we do not have the EU to give us the science in these areas, to make regulations and to tell us what we ought to be doing. I simply say that as we leave the EU it will be for us to decide these things and we have some of the best fisheries science in the world. Across the UK, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science is our lead fisheries science agency. It is a world-leading agency and other Governments right across the globe seek input and expertise from our British fisheries science agencies.

Northern Ireland has its own CEFAS equivalent—its own Northern Ireland-based fisheries science capability, hosted within the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute. The AFBI is a multidisciplinary organisation, with 650 staff involved in all sorts of high-technology research and development. It leads on fisheries science. This morning, I met Mark McCaughan who is a chief scientific officer on fisheries. The AFBI has a fisheries science base in Stormont and it leads on all the key technical work that needs to be done on issues such as fish health and preventing invasive species.

As I pointed out in my opening remarks, the Northern Ireland Administration and the Irish Government have had long-standing co-operation on building joint management plans for sectors such as mussels that predates the EU. These arrangements will continue; they do not need the EU to stand behind them. The island of Ireland is a single epidemiological area, and there has always been close co-operation on these matters.

There is a tendency for all these debates to cover lots of technical detail, as the hon. Gentleman said. However, it is important to remember that all we are doing with these SIs is substituting the words “United Kingdom Government” for “the European Commission” and making other such amendments. We are not making substantive changes. Members need to bear in mind that probably the most pernicious so-called Henry VIII power of all was the European Communities Act, because section 2(2) of that Act meant that with negative instruments all over the place the European Commission was in effect able to rampage through our domestic law book. The irony is that when any of these regulations were introduced in the House via a negative SI, sometimes to implement delegated Acts from the European Union, there would have been little or no parliamentary scrutiny. It is only now, as we seek to make those regulations that have been in place for some time operable, that Members seem to be concerned.

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To reiterate and strengthen the opinion the Minister has just rehearsed, it is important to note that the local fish producers organisations that I referred to endorse what the Minister is putting forward today. If they have faith in the Minister and what he is putting forward, we in the House should have the same faith.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that confirmation. There was indeed consultation, but it was led by DAERA. It is important to recognise that we are doing this on DAERA’s behalf and at its request. DAERA has co-operated and consulted widely with stakeholders in Northern Ireland, and I understand that the regulations have their support. In conclusion—

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The Minister has not fully answered my question about the way in which directive 2006/88 is being replaced by regulation 2016/249. He mentioned something about an automatic carry-over, but I do not really understand how that works. The statutory instrument says:

“After regulation 21(6), insert—

‘(7) For the purposes of paragraph (1), regulations 19(3)(c) and 21(1) and paragraphs (1)(c)(iii) and 4(d) of Schedule 1A, Part A of Annex 3 to Directive 2006/88’”

and so on. It is almost impossible for anybody to work out what is actually happening. Will the Minister describe how we are going to take on regulation 2016 rather than directive 2006, as a result of this statutory instrument?

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The point that hon. Gentleman describes in some detail is a point that I explained in my opening speech when I talked about cross-references. If the retained EU law retained a reference to an EU directive, that would no longer be operable, because EU directives would no longer apply in the UK. The only way to make such provisions operable is to have a reference point in UK law. The 2006 regulations will become retained EU law on a UK legal basis. All we are saying is that we will change references to the original directive that gave rise to the regulation and make them references contained within the regulations themselves, so that they will remain operable. It is quite complicated, but essentially it boils down to this: EU directives will cease to have effect in the UK after we leave, but retained EU law will continue to have effect, so if there are provisions in directives that we wish to retain, we must bring them over in the retained EU law. In this case, we do that with the regulation concerned.

We have explored some of the key areas of this statutory instrument. I hope I have been able to reassure Members not only that this instrument is essential to ensure that we have an operable rulebook in this area on day one of exit, but that we are not creating any policy changes or new policy through this statutory instrument. We are simply ensuring that the arrangements that pertain today can continue. I therefore commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.