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Exiting the European Union (Agriculture)

Volume 658: debated on Tuesday 23 April 2019

I beg to move,

That the draft Animal Health, Seed Potatoes and Food (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 3 April, be approved.

Let me first echo the points that were made during the last debate, not least by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). I too would much prefer decisions of this type to be made by a functioning democratic Executive in Stormont.

This is one of a number of affirmative procedure statutory instruments to be considered as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. It will ensure that legislation concerning the control of salmonella in the poultry sector, beef and veal labelling, and seed potato inspections and marketing will continue to function in Northern Ireland after exit.

I entirely take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but this applies solely to Northern Ireland. Obviously, it applies under different legislation, but the instrument applies specifically to Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal exit from the European Union.

The subject of seed potatoes has been raised with businesses in my constituency, which have been told that if there is no deal they cannot export them to the Republic of Ireland.

That is indeed the case. Seed potato production in Northern Ireland is less important than it used to be, but 318 hectares of certified seed are still grown there by about 50 growers. Of the 4,000 tonnes marketed, 2,000 were marketed in the Republic, 1,000 were marketed in Northern Ireland, and 1,000 were exported to countries including Egypt, Morocco and the Canary islands. In the event of a no-deal scenario, 2,000 tonnes will be lost. The main varieties grown for the southern market, including Kerr’s Pink, Maris Piper and British Queen, are not generally in demand in the UK market, and in the event of no deal an adjustment will therefore be necessary. Growers may wish to switch to new varieties such as Miranda and Opal.

Has the Minister had an opportunity to engage in any discussions with the Ulster Farmers Union or the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association? It is important for consultation to be wide enough to involve those organisations, which represent the farming community throughout Northern Ireland.

There was no need for formal consultation, because this is a “no change” piece of legislation. It allows the current situation to continue in the event of a no-deal Brexit. However, conversations took place with many stakeholders, including representatives of the Ulster Farmers Union, who were content that the regulations maintained the status quo.

Did the Minister speak to the companies that process potatoes in Northern Ireland? The two main processors are Glens of Antrim Potatoes Ltd, which is in my constituency, and Wilson’s Country Ltd. It is essential for them to know that this is going to happen, and that their interests have been taken into consideration.

The hon. Gentleman is right: the potato processing sector is very important. Seed potato production in Northern Ireland is worth about £2 million a year. Ware potatoes are not grown solely for ware, but are also a by-product of seed potato production. Potatoes that are too big to use for seed purposes go into the ware market, which is worth £20 million, but the processing will value-add £200 million. In Scarborough, in my constituency, McCain Foods processes potatoes and slices 1,000 tonnes per day. The processing sector is vital, not least because of the employment that it provides not just for UK citizens but for EU citizens who come here to work in the sector.

Does the Minister realise that the scale of potato production on the British mainland is so much more vast than it is in Northern Ireland? In fact, one processing line in England could probably take over the entire capacity of the Northern Irish processers. They have to be protected; otherwise, we will see our potato industry in Northern Ireland diminished.

The hon. Gentleman makes another very valid point. That is why it is so important that we get this piece of legislation through to enable the current situation to continue.

Northern Ireland people are keen to support the crisps produced locally in Northern Ireland. If I may, I will also just touch on Comber new potatoes. They are renowned throughout Northern Ireland, which grows the variety Maris Piper in the main. They are a protected designation of potato, and I gather that they are grown in the constituency of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). That is another important part of the Northern Ireland potato market.

The Minister talks about protected species, and my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is also a protected species. However, on seed potato, my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) mentioned Wilson’s Country in my constituency. It will lose £60,000 per week if it cannot export seed potatoes to the Republic of Ireland.

That explains why it is so important that we get a deal across the line. Indeed, having had at least three or four opportunities to vote for that deal, we certainly need to see an orderly way forward.

Let me just comment on the point about the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) needing some sort of protection. I do not think he needs any protection at all. My experience of him in this Chamber is that he can very much stand up for himself and indeed for his constituents, who are involved in not only the agricultural industry but the fishing industry in a very important way.

Obviously, in my previous job in the Northern Ireland Assembly, one of the things we tried to do was to ensure that the EU had a protected position for the Comber potato. It is renowned not just across the whole of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but across the UK mainland as well. Other Members here may say that their potatoes are good; I can only say that ours are the best.

Who could possibly argue with that? I have to say, however, that the new potatoes from Jersey and Pembrokeshire do hit the market slightly sooner than the Comber potatoes. However, the protection of particular locally grown produce is very important. Indeed, we have Lough Neagh eels, which are protected, and Armagh Bramley apples, which also have a great following, not only across the water in Northern Ireland, but here on the mainland too.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the importance of seed potatoes in respect of Northern Ireland and Brexit is because of the possibility of no deal? In that case, growers in Northern Ireland, whose seed potatoes are world renowned, not least because of their disease resistance, will have to change the kind of seed potatoes they produce—he touched on this in his remarks—if they are to export to markets outwith the European Union. That is because what is good for the European Union is not necessarily going to be appropriate for markets in, for example, north Africa. Despite the two years cited in the regulations, it is absolutely imperative that we get this measure on the statute book. If we do not, it is going to be very important for growers in Northern Ireland to be able to diversify in the way I have just described so that they can address markets outside the European Union, which presents a huge opportunity for them.

My hon. Friend, who chairs the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, is absolutely right as regards the importance of getting this piece of legislation through and on the statute book. Indeed, the quality of seed potatoes produced not only in Northern Ireland but in Scotland and on the higher ground in England is world renowned. Virus diseases can be controlled using propagation methods and the strictures on growing potatoes for seed. That means that we have a world-class standing in terms of the quality of seed that we can produce, with very low levels of the virus diseases that can affect potatoes. That means that we have to continue to keep those standards up.

Let me turn to the other measures in this statutory instrument. The Control of Salmonella in Poultry Scheme Order (Northern Ireland) 2008, the Control of Salmonella in Broiler Flocks Scheme Order (Northern Ireland) 2009, the Control of Salmonella in Turkey Flocks Scheme Order (Northern Ireland) Order 2010, the Beef and Veal Labelling Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2010 and the Seed Potatoes Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 are the measures being amended under this instrument.

These regulations make technical, legal amendments to maintain the effectiveness and continuity of UK legislation that would otherwise be left partially inoperable. Those adjustments represent no changes of policy; nor will they have any impact on businesses or the public. The sifting Committees considered this draft legislation on 21 February 2019. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee recommended that this instrument be debated in Parliament as it contained proposed amendments to the Plant Health (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which was in draft at the time. However, this element was laid before Parliament on 5 April 2019 and has been approved by the House.

Due to the decision of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, parts 5 and 6 of the draft regulations have been omitted and included in the Plant Health (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, and the draft regulation has been renamed the Animal Health, Seed Potatoes and Food (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. So all the contentious or controversial aspects have already been removed, leaving this important but rather hollowed-out measure, which lacks the points that were of interest when it was referred. The draft instrument is being introduced under the correcting powers in sections 8(1) and 14(1) of paragraph 1 of schedule 4 and paragraph 21 of schedule 7 to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Principally, it makes amendments to address technical operability issues as a consequence of EU exit.

This instrument applies to the fields of animal health, the marketing of seed potatoes and the labelling of beef and veal, which are devolved matters for Northern Ireland. The Scottish Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are making similar changes by means of their own secondary legislation within their areas of legislative competence. I know that Opposition Members will mention consultations—indeed, they were mentioned earlier by Democratic Unionist party colleagues—so I will address this question for them. Although there was no statutory requirement to consult publicly on the instrument, officials engaged with key stakeholders covering different sectors to discuss the amendments that would be required and provided the opportunity to gain views on the draft instrument before it was laid. Stakeholders principally included the Ulster Farmers Union.

In regard to the structure of this SI, part 2 of the instrument amends the Control of Salmonella in Poultry Scheme Order (Northern Ireland) 2008, the Control of Salmonella in Broiler Flocks Scheme Order (Northern Ireland) 2009 and the Control of Salmonella in Turkey Flocks Scheme Order (Northern Ireland) 2010, to maintain and ensure high standards of poultry health. Part 3 amends the Beef and Veal Labelling Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2010, providing for the provision of information for non-prepackaged meat of bovine animals aged 12 months or less at the point of sale, establishing a system for identification and labelling of beef and beef products. This ensures the maintenance of the marketing standards of meat and bovine animals. Part 4 amends the Seed Potato Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016, to ensure that high plant health and marketing standards are maintained. It also provides for a one-year interim period during which EU seed potatoes will continue to be recognised for production and marketing in Northern Ireland to ensure the continuity of supplies of seed potatoes.

What are the main changes? When I talk about changes, I mean changes to the text to cater for Brexit, rather than any substantive or policy changes. As with other instruments, various terms in the regulations or the directives that relate to the EU are amended to be relevant to the UK. The instrument updates references to retained EU legislation in parts 2, 3 and 4. Part 4 also introduces legislation that ensures that the legal requirements for producing and marketing seed potatoes are in place after the UK has left the EU.

There are three main changes. The first involves grade names. The current legislation is the Seed Potatoes Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016, which includes all the requirements from the EU directive on seed potatoes—that is, directive 2002/56/EC. In those regulations, seed potatoes are sold in various grades, called union grades, depending on the age and quality of the seed. The instrument renames the union grades as “UK grades”. The actual names of the grades—PB, S, SE and E—are unchanged, as are the requirements to be met for each of the grades.

Secondly, if the UK leaves the EU without a withdrawal agreement, UK seed potatoes will be prohibited from being marketed in the EU. In those circumstances, the UK could also prohibit the marketing in the UK of seed potatoes produced in the EU and Switzerland.

However, the varieties currently purchased by UK growers from the EU are not currently available within the UK. England, Wales and Northern Ireland have therefore agreed that EU seed potatoes will continue to be permitted to be marketed for a period of one year after exit day. That should give the UK industry some time to produce some of these varieties themselves. The instrument gives effect to that change.

For a variety of seed potato to be marketed within the UK, it must be listed on the UK national list or the EU common catalogue. After the UK has left the EU, the instrument will permit the marketing of varieties that are on the EU common catalogue, but not on the UK national list, for a period of two years. That will give the companies that control such varieties time to enter them on the UK national list and will also allow UK growers to continue to have access to those varieties in the interim.

This instrument will ensure that the high biosecurity and marketing standards achieved in both animal and plant health in Northern Ireland are maintained when we leave the European Union, and I commend it to the House.

This legislation is important for the protection of human, animal and plant health and for maintaining important safeguards to ensure food safety information for consumers. The Government can easily ensure the maintenance of such safeguards by agreeing with Labour that there should be a permanent and comprehensive UK-EU customs union, close alignment with the single market, dynamic alignment on rights and protections, and clear commitments on participation in EU agencies. That would ensure that we continue to share knowledge and expertise with EU bodies, avoiding extra costs and burdens for business, saving jobs and protecting our livestock, trees and plants from pests and diseases.

This statutory instrument is another in the series of Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs EU exit SIs, of which there have been over 120 to date, using powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to make technical changes to retained EU and domestic legislation. This SI covers salmonella in poultry, labelling of beef and veal, and seed potato marketing, all of which are devolved matters for Northern Ireland, and it is a real shame that there is no functioning Northern Ireland Assembly to scrutinise it.

Labour believes that it is vital that we maintain protections for imported eggs and poultry food products. Despite the discreditable chlorinating process that is supposed to prevent infection, citizens in the US still suffer around 1.2 million cases of salmonella food poisoning a year, and there were 450 deaths last year. What is the current assessment of the level of risk of salmonella in poultry in Northern Ireland? What assessment has been made of the level of risk of salmonella in eggs and poultry food products expected to be imported into Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU?

Northern Irish seed potatoes are highly prized and commercially valuable, so it is important to maintain the EU classification and certification regime and protect them from imports that might be of inferior quality or bring in pests and diseases. Similarly, the high quality of Northern Irish beef needs continuing protection via the EU labelling regulations.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that Northern Ireland processes about 2.6 million birds every week. The poultry industry is one of our most vital and supplies about 30% of the entire UK market. Protecting the sector is much more important to our farmers and processors than anything else, and we do not want to implement anything that would damage our local UK market.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his strong point. Clearly, where the major market is within the UK, that needs to be protected. However, there is always the danger not just that other markets will be lost, but that the UK market may be lost if inferior and cheaper poultry were able to be imported into the UK. The protection of good-quality food from the EU is one of the major planks that it has operated and this SI is an attempt to try to salvage some of that, but whether it will be successful largely depends on all sorts of other issues.

The succession of different versions of this statutory instrument, each with errors and omissions, does not inspire confidence. Despite now being on its fourth version, there may still be an error in regulation 9(b), which amends regulation 4(3)(b) of the Seed Potatoes Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016. Can the Minister confirm that the substitute wording should have two “where”s, rather than one “where” and one “were”? It is a minor point but, with the vast amount of work being done on all these SIs over a very short period of time, there have been grammatical errors that might lead to them being difficult to enforce.

Why was Regulation (EC) No. 2160/2003 not included in the three Northern Ireland poultry salmonella orders referred to in regulations 2, 3 and 4 when they were originally made? Numerous changes have been made between the four different versions of this SI that have been presented to Parliament so far. Can the Minister explain whether there is any significance and why the wording of regulation 8(f) and (g) in the previous version has been omitted, why the reference to point A7 of annex III was added to proposed new paragraph (b)(iii) of regulation 2 of the Seed Potatoes Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 and why the wording in regulation 9(a) and (c) was omitted in this version? Various changes have been made, and it is extremely difficult to follow them and to work out why they have been made. Will the Minister commit to correcting any errors that are identified and to ensuring Parliament has the opportunity to consider how stakeholders can be better engaged in the scrutiny of secondary legislation in future, as suggested by Green Alliance?

After 120 different statutory instruments over the past three months, I put on record my admiration for the stupendous amount of hard work done by civil servants in producing all this necessary work, and I crave the Minister’s indulgence in also registering my profound thanks, and the profound thanks of my hon. Friends, to our Opposition staff for their enormous work in preparing us for these statutory instruments. In particular, I thank Roxanne Mashari, Rob Wakely, Will Murray and Eliot Andersen.

We take all these matters extremely seriously and intend to do everything we can to maintain and enhance this country’s record of high standards and scientific excellence as we prepare to leave the EU. I hope the Minister will respond seriously on the matters I have raised. Having said that, we do not intend to vote against the regulations on this occasion.

I have a few points to add to what has already been said in this important debate. I commend the Department for bringing forward these regulations and for being on top of it.

The hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) spoke about the issue of scrutiny, and of course we would prefer all these matters to be taken through the Northern Ireland Assembly. I used to chair the Assembly’s agriculture committee, and this place has probably given the seed potatoes bit of these regulations just as much scrutiny as they got from the Northern Ireland Assembly, so the House should not take as punishment the criticism that seed potatoes are not getting enough scrutiny tonight. It is usually just two or three Members who care about these issues when they are addressed in the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is not to shirk the responsibility we would like the Assembly to have once again for these matters.

Northern Ireland produces the best, the tastiest and the most traceable food in all the United Kingdom. It is what we are expert in doing, and any Member who visits Northern Ireland, whether they are drinking liquids from Northern Ireland—Coca-Cola, of course—or indulging in our best food, knows we produce really good food. It is in all our interests to make sure that our primary industry is protected and assisted at this time of immense, radical change.

I will briefly wind up and answer one or two points that have been raised. I agree with the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) about the quality of Northern Ireland’s food. Indeed, I believe the Ulster fry is the pinnacle of Ulster cuisine in the ingenious way in which it manages to incorporate both potatoes and lard. I always look forward to an Ulster fry when I visit Northern Ireland.

A number of points made by the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) are not specifically relevant to what is before us today, which is about the quality of produce produced in Northern Ireland. Matters relating to chlorinated chicken or other issues as regards future international trade deals are important, but they are not specifically before us today. He raised a couple of technical issues where we may or may not have made errors. I would be pleased for us to look at those again and correct any errors we may have made. As I said in relation to an earlier statutory instrument, the quantity of legislation we have had to go through means it is almost certain that we would have made some mistakes, and if they are brought to our attention—or if we notice them first—we will make sure they are put right.

I repeat that this statutory instrument is a “business as usual” SI. It does not make changes; it allows a continuity of the situation should we fall into a no-deal Brexit. If, as I seem to gather from what the hon. Gentleman was saying, he is concerned that we may leave the EU without a deal, the matter is simple: he should, together with his colleagues in the Labour party, vote for the deal to ensure an orderly departure from the EU and to ensure that we move into the implementation period, when many of these sorts of issues can be dealt with in the fullness in time and be properly dealt with. I am disappointed that, particularly in the north of England, where so many constituencies that elected Labour MPs actually voted to leave the EU, some MPs are not listening to their constituents.

Does the Minister accept that, if we were to have a permanent customs union and to move in the direction that the Labour party has been calling for, the Government would not need to have a backstop and they might get the support of the party on this side of the House as well?

Staying in the customs union is not what the people in Scarborough and Whitby voted for when they voted—62% was the figure—to leave the EU. In any case, I ask that this measure be approved.

Question put and agreed to.