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Exiting the European Union (Agriculture)

Volume 664: debated on Tuesday 1 October 2019

I beg to move,

That the draft Common Organisation of the Markets in Agricultural Products (Transitional Arrangements etc.) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 24 July, be approved.

The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), and a number of other Members may, in the case of this statutory instrument and two others that we will consider this afternoon, have a sense of déjà vu, not for the first time in issues relating to EU exit. I will explain why these further statutory instruments are necessary, but I do not envisage that we will need to take up the full time allocated for them, unless the shadow Minister feels that he did not rehearse these issues in the detail he would have liked to last time. This particular instrument concerns the common organisation of the agricultural markets, more commonly referred to as the CMO in EU parlance. The CMO sits in pillar 1 of the common agricultural policy alongside direct payments, and it was set up as a means of meeting the objectives of the CAP, in particular with regard to stabilising markets, ensuring a fair standard of living for agricultural producers and increasing agricultural productivity.

How does that impact subsidies to farmers, which must affect the markets? Where are we in terms of the continuation of subsidies to stabilise those markets?

Retained EU law means that the existing basic payment scheme will continue. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Agriculture Bill, which has been before the House, outlines a plan to evolve that policy over a period of seven years, but that is not the issue before us today. This particular instrument relates to the CMO regulations.

In March this year, six EU exit operability SIs concerning the CMO were debated in the House, approved and made. Those SIs sought to make retained EU law operable in the domestic UK context. The instrument under debate amends one of those existing EU exit SIs: the Common Organisation of the Markets in Agricultural Products and Common Agricultural Policy (Miscellaneous Amendments) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. The existing SI, which was passed in March, ensured the operability of certain provisions relating to the reserved policy areas of regulation of anti-competitive practices, international trade, imports and exports and intellectual property law. Among other things, it establishes transitional periods for the import documentation for hops, certificates of conformity for fruit and vegetables and imports of veal.

The original statutory instrument obviously envisaged a departure date of the end of March, but, as Members are fully aware, a decision was taken to delay our departure to 31 October. The primary aim of this statutory instrument is to make simple corrections to the existing EU exit SI, to ensure that, where provisions refer to a transitional period, those periods are realised as was intended.

Current EU legislation requires hops imported from third countries to be accompanied by an attestation certifying compliance with EU marketing standards. For fruit and vegetables, EU legislation permits the inspection authorities of specified third countries to certify that imports originating from that country comply with EU marketing standards, so that they may benefit from lower inspection burdens in the EU. That legislation will be rolled over into UK law, and we are providing for a transitional period of two years for forms and certificates that we accept from third countries attesting that a product meets marketing standard requirements, during which both the new UK forms and certificates and their equivalent EU versions shall be accepted, provided that the EU standards remain at least as high as the UK standards. That will allow importers time to transition to using the new forms of documentation.

This instrument also concerns imports of veal. Under EU law, third countries wishing to import bovine meat into the EU must maintain an identification and registration system of the bovine animals they intend to import, starting from the day of birth of the animals. This is to ensure that imported meat has traceable origins and meets the EU’s standards and that the age of animals whose meat is marketed as veal can be verified. The name and address of the body in charge of the system, with a list of operators for whom the body is carrying out checks, must be notified to the Commission before the first consignment of veal is imported.

These rules are being retained in our own EU exit SIs, with a requirement for third countries—including EU member states, which will become third countries when we exit—to notify this information to the Secretary of State. To safeguard the continuity of veal imports from the EU into the UK after EU exit, we have allowed a three-month transitional period, to allow the EU time to gather and submit the required information to the UK. The end dates for these transitional periods were explicitly stated as 29 March 2021 for hops and fruit and vegetables and 30 June 2019 for veal.

It is important that the standards are maintained as we head towards 31 October, and many of my constituents will be concerned about not only the maintenance of those standards but also pricing. Can the Minister clarify the Government’s policy on what tariffs the UK would place on EU agricultural goods coming into the UK if, in the event of no deal, the EU placed tariffs on UK agricultural goods?

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

As I was saying, the end dates of these transitional periods were explicitly stated as 29 March 2021 for hops and fruit and vegetables and 30 June 2019 for veal. However, the extension of article 50 to 31 October would render those transitional periods significantly shorter, or in the case of imports of veal, completely redundant. This statutory instrument preserves the original transition period that was intended.

The instrument makes further amendments to the Common Organisation of the Markets in Agricultural Products and Common Agricultural Policy (Miscellaneous Amendments) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 in order to correct inconsistencies in the drafting and minor inoperabilities. The instrument under debate relates to reserved policy areas. However, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has engaged the devolved Administrations on its approach to CAP legislation under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, including on this instrument, to familiarise them with the legislation ahead of laying it. I commend these regulations to the House.

It is just like old times—we are back considering SIs, and it is good to see the Minister back in his place. I see Ministers rather like basketball players: they come and go, and they keep substituting for one another. On the Opposition Benches, there is a bit more consistency, and we tend to stick it out.

It is important that we have this opportunity to revisit the legislation. I do not know whether this is the amendment of the amendment, or the amendment of the amendment of the amendment—we have had so many of these SIs, and we have amended them and debated them thoroughly. It would be interesting to know where and when these mistakes arose, who found them and why we did not get it right earlier; perhaps the Minister will be able to say a few things about that.

It would also be interesting to know whether this SI is part of the process of evolution we warned there would be. Clearly, the EU does not stand still; some of these changes are inevitable, because the EU has made policy developments and we need to amend our legislative framework so that, when and if we drop out, we have clarity about the basis on which our law will be taken forward. Although this is secondary legislation, it matters, because this sector will be the most affected by no deal and, more particularly, whatever happens as a result of what goes on at the end of this month.

I have some specific questions for the Minister, but first let me say in passing that it would be nice if we were spending this time on the Agriculture Bill, which disappeared in November 2018. We have now spent nearly a year waiting for it to come back. I see these debates as like sticking the tent poles up in a gale when someone has forgotten the canvas. It would be nice to know where the canvas is, because we are going to get rather wet without it, given what has been happening outside with our weather and so on. It is important that we know where that Bill has got to.

I was impressed by some of the amendments tabled to that Bill by the Minister, along with the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). We thought they were excellent. Sadly, they seem to have disappeared. It would be nice to know whether the Minister still believes in those amendments. Certainly, if he and his colleague do not want to move them, we will, because they would provide actual protections. That is highly relevant to this SI, which is the most straightforward—dare I say it; we have some more difficult ones to come. We have rather a lot of time to spend on it, so we might as well spend it creatively and appropriately.

I am not sure in which debate I said this, because we have taken part in so many and we conflated a number of SIs, to the benefit of the Government. We did not have to do that, but clearly, with 500 Brexit-related SIs, of which more than 120 were DEFRA related, we had to do something to address the time restraints we faced and to do the job as well as we could. We warned that mistakes would be made because of the hurried way in which we went through this process—and mistakes were made. It is not without concern that farmers still face a great deal of uncertainty.

Clearly, this is the least contentious of the four SIs we will consider this afternoon. The other three are fairly straightforward, but we nevertheless have some concerns about them. This one is less of a concern, although I raised some worries about it previously and I will raise them again, because I am not sure we got the answers we would have liked to hear.

It is interesting to know that the regulations correct minor details, although the Minister rightly mentioned the impact on both the meat trade and vegetables. With that specifically in mind, a lot of the changes are about giving the Secretary of State all responsibility. It is important that we understand that. It is deliberately aligned, with the Government and the Minister being directly responsible. However, I do not understand why some of the references have been changed in the way that they have been. The Minister may want to explain that. Clearly, if the changes are purely to correct drafting errors, I will accept that, but some seem to change the responsibility even more, so that the Minister, and the Minister alone, is the responsible agency.

I have one very specific question, which I hope the Minister is able to answer. I am interested in why the olive oil and table olives sector, and likewise the silkworm sector, and interbranch organisations in the olive oil and table olives sector and the tobacco sector, were removed from this piece of secondary legislation. I do not understand why they were in the first or second draft—I think we are now on to the third draft.

On funding, although this is all about pillar 1, it has an impact on pillar 2. We had those debates; I just wonder where the Government are in terms of their philosophy on direct payments, which they want to remove. We do not yet have an agriculture Act in place to do that, so no doubt we will have to fall back on the current funding arrangements, presumably for the whole period of the transitional arrangements, which the Minister says could be up to two years. Unless the Government have sufficient resources, that will impact pillar 2. I always worry that money is filched from pillar 2. It would be good to know that the Government are clear that they will maintain enough payments in pillar 2. I know that is more pertinent to the second SI we will debate, upon which rural development regulations are contingent. It would be interesting to know whether the Government will put on the record that they intend to protect pillar 2 payments as a priority.

The other issue I want to raise is about monitoring and evaluation. The relatively new Secretary of State—everyone is relatively new, because we have had such a change in personnel—when asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan) about the office for environmental protection, which of course would be in place if we got the environment Bill enacted, acknowledged that there will be a gap in provision and that that will lead to some difficulties. I am not at all sure who is going to do the monitoring and evaluation. We talked about maintaining standards of imports from EU countries, but who will maintain the standards of our current produce? Unless there is an authority that is able to do that, we will have a significant problem identifying whether our standards, let alone the standards of what might come in from abroad, are maintained.

The Opposition, at least, have always argued that there is a shortage of people to do those jobs, because they have gone into Europe and may not have come back—I do not know what the current employment situation is. I know we have all these additional civil servants, but there is no guarantee that they have the right skills to do this sort of work. Sadly, there has been a decline in agricultural science under this Government. Clearly, the people who are going to do this sort of work will need scientific training, because it is about trying to maintain the quality of the products we are discussing.

There is a lot in the draft regulations, even though, as I say, this is the most straightforward of the SIs we will deal with this afternoon. I hope the Minister is able to say a few things about it before we get on to our slightly more detailed scrutiny of the other three SIs.

The amendments before us are ones for delay. Three years and three months have passed since we decided to leave the European Union. Leave voters would have expected us to have left at the two-year mark and to be well into enjoying the benefits of our independence by now, particularly in the agriculture and fishing sectors, where it is so much easier to design policies that would be better for domestic production and consumers than those they replaced.

I rise just to tease out a little more why the Government think we need a further 21 to 24 months’ delay in putting through policies that should clearly be better, because they would be fashioned in the United Kingdom with United Kingdom consumers and farmers in mind. I would like the Minister, who knows his subject very well, on behalf of the Government to exude a bit more optimism and confidence about our ability to govern these areas better and to try to reduce that time.

What transition can we not do today? What have we failed to do in three years and three months that we will be able to do, miraculously, from 1 November onwards? I find it difficult to understand what these things are that could not have been prepared already. Indeed, knowing my hon. Friend the Minister I suspect that they had been prepared already, because he is knowledgeable and assiduous, and a great deal of work has gone in. Before we automatically allow these things through, I do think we need a better explanation of why we need to have more than five years elapse from the point where many of us said, “Yes, we can do better. Yes, we can have more home-grown food. Yes, we can have more environmentally friendly agriculture. Yes, we can look after our animals so much better if we have UK rules. Yes, we can have a better international market in food if we can get down the tariffs on food from outside the EU.” These are all great bonuses of Brexit, and all we get today is, “Why don’t we waste another 21 to 24 months?” Please, Minister, cheer us up.

Order. I appreciate that the hon. Lady is being straightforward in what she has just said, but I am afraid she cannot speak to all of the instruments at once. They are being taken separately. There is provision, quite often, to take these matters all at once, and the occupant of the Chair will say, “Everyone may speak to everything at once”, so it is not the hon. Lady’s fault for assuming that she might be able to do that, but I am afraid that it is a pretty strict rule. She has to speak only to the first one, and then later she can speak to the second, and then later to the third and then later to the fourth.

Those joys await me. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. You would almost assume that the instruments have been split just to fill the time while the Government are off playing in the delights of Manchester. But that would be very cynical of me.

I find myself on my hind legs again talking to statutory instruments that will be necessary as part of the eye-wateringly enormous effort to replace the sensible functioning of the European Union with domestic legislation that seeks to do the same thing. In the bonkers Brexit boorach, this all makes sense to someone, somewhere. I cannot help noticing, however, that if the Prime Minister’s cunning plan had succeeded and Scotland’s Court of Session had not reeled him back in—something that of course the UK Supreme Court agreed with—this place would be empty now. None of us would be here and the very important pieces of legislation that the Minister has brought to us today would still be sitting in a DEFRA drawer somewhere. Well, that is the optimistic view; they would more likely be headed for the shredder, with all the rest of the legislation that was being dumped on Prorogation.

We still await the return of the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill, as well as the environment Bill in this portfolio and scores of other pieces of legislation in other areas, all of which we have been told are needed to keep the UK functioning after Brexit. We have been told by, in my view, the worst Prime Minister in living memory that Brexit day is a mere 30 days away, come hell or high water, deal or no deal, give him ditches or give him death, but we have only these pieces of secondary legislation now, and the other pieces of secondary legislation and large chunks of primary legislation that we have been told so often are necessary for the proper functioning of the UK post B-day are still missing.

It would seem that this Government are determined to rip the UK out of the EU on Halloween, but do not give a flaming flamingo about getting the shop ready for opening day. For sure, there has been a very expensive advertising campaign telling everyone else to get ready, but the UK Government have stood steadfast too long in their refusal to prepare themselves, and we are now looking at a disaster of the Government’s making, while they insist that we are walking out that door no matter what. This legislation should have been prepared and presented a long time back, along with all the other pieces that should have been presented in an orderly fashion. Instead, it comes bundled on the back of a Prorogation that never was, half-formed and very late.

The Government are not prepared for Brexit, as was pointed out in the Brexit Secretary’s letter to Michel Barnier recently. I particularly appreciated his remark that

“there will be insufficient time to complete such work if left until the last days of October”,

as if there currently exists an enormous reservoir of time to do all that should have been done in the last three years. This Government appear to be just getting around to noticing what is coming. I hope that it will not be too long now until they realise what it means. I have to say that I have a great deal of sympathy for the civil servants who must be working flat out trying to get some sense of order into the chaos, because they appear to be getting absolutely no guidance from the politicians who should be pointing the way—led by donkeys, indeed.

So to this statutory instrument, and I will shorten my contribution at this point, Madam Deputy Speaker. On this particular one, the substitution of the role is largely to do with the timing and such things and it is relatively minimal. I will speak at some length on the pesticides instrument and to a degree on the CAP one later, but I will end my contribution at that point.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate.

In April I was elected to this place in a by-election. I know that many colleagues across the House spent a great deal of time in Newport West and, in doing so, will have had the chance to see our city centre, our housing estates and our productive farming industry. In fact, the current Prime Minister, soon after taking office in July, made a visit to Newport West. Sadly, he did not ask me for a tour because there is plenty I would have shown him, but he will have seen for himself the need for his Government to do right by our farmers, and not to play fast and loose with their livelihoods and with our local and national economy.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) for committing Labour to doing the right thing by our environment, our farming industries and agriculture more generally, and, importantly, for leading the fight in holding the Government to account when it comes to our departure from the European Union. This set of statutory instruments and all other relevant pieces of business require serious consideration by this House. We need thoroughly and comprehensively to take these issues apart to ensure that we get the best outcome possible for all of us across the UK.

I echo the shadow Secretary of State, who has been very clear that Her Majesty’s Opposition will not allow the crisis that is Brexit to be used as an excuse to reduce or weaken our environmental and public health protections. In fact, we want to maintain and enhance this country’s record of high standards and scientific excellence in the months and years ahead. I do not want to see chlorinated chicken in our shops, or hormone-fed beef in our butchers’, and nor do the people of Newport West, Wales or the rest of the UK.

Whatever happens, we need to ensure that our farmers avoid extra costs and businesses avoid greater burdens. We need to save jobs and protect our livestock, trees and plants from pests and diseases. We can do that by being sensible and realistic about the time pressures. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) was known for her red lines and look what happened to her. I do not want red lines and an unrealistic timeline to mean that the same happens to farmers, plants, animals or trees in Newport West or anywhere else in the country. I am hugely concerned by the reckless speed at which this minority Government—we should not let them forget that they are a minority Government—are pushing through the EU exit legislation without proper consultation, few, if any, impact assessments and wholly inadequate legislation. I have been here since April, but it is evident to me that the legislation we are discussing now was an afterthought for the Government. They did not want to be here this week, and when this House flexed its muscles and stood up to the Executive, the Leader of the House chose legislation that he hoped would allow his colleagues to stay in Manchester rather than sit here in the House.

As each day passes, we get closer to the edge. A no-deal departure would be catastrophic for the food and drink sector in Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. Let us be clear: the longer the uncertainty continues, the longer the sector suffers. Farmers in Newport West rely on a steady and dependable stream of European Union funding and need the time and space to prepare for the future. The same goes for our businesses. Investment will not come until people have a better idea of what the future will look like.

Can the hon. Lady say whether she disagrees with the statutory instrument? I have not heard her provide any analysis of it.

As I proceed, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will see what I am saying.

It is not just in Wales, but in other parts of these islands. We need only look across the Irish sea to the island of Ireland. Farmers, manufacturers and traders in Ireland and Northern Ireland are gravely concerned about the actions of the Government and what any Brexit deal may or may not mean for them, their livelihoods and their communities. As we discussed in the House last night, that is made far worse by the lack of a devolved Government in Stormont. I am not speculating or scaremongering: the fears felt across these islands were confirmed in the Government’s Yellowhammer documents.

Like many hon. Members, I am disappointed to see that all the time put in by Members on the Agriculture Bill appears to have been for nothing. The illegal Prorogation of Parliament by the Government has meant that good and important legislation has fallen, so I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government intend to carry the Bill over if Parliament is prorogued—legally, this time, of course. A strong, comprehensive and authoritative Agriculture Bill would safeguard the nation’s food supply at a time when food poverty is on the rise and food bank reliance is ever increasing. The Government’s Bill was a starting point, but we must go further and do more. I hope that the Government will bring forward amendments to the Bill to prevent our farmers from being undercut on quality and price by imports that are produced to lower environmental and animal welfare standards than here in the UK. These are hugely important issues, and I am happy to continue fighting for farmers in Newport West over the coming months and years.

It takes a certain ingenuity to come up with new things to say about some of these statutory instruments, especially as I spoke at length about this one the last time we saw it. On Thursday, I stayed to listen to the Leader of the House and he took great relish in reading out the titles of the statutory instruments in what was a bit of a performance. But this is not a game. The details in the regulations that we have in the European Union have produced unparalleled food safety in this country—far better than the food safety that pertains in the United States—and exemplary environmental protections. We need to have SIs that are accurate and fit for purpose to make sure that we do not lose that food safety and environmental protection when we leave the European Union.

I have a series of questions for the Minister. How many SIs are still to be corrected before we can be sure that the safety of agricultural products we import will not be compromised? How will we know whether we have found all of those SIs? In answer to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), I have to say that while I would very much like us to grow more food in this country—I have mentioned broad beans—and there are various food groups where we could grow more of our own, I do not think we have time to grow a fully formed olive grove in Wokingham before 31 October. We will still need to continue to import food.

How can we be sure that all the other SIs are now fit for purpose? What will happen to all the SIs that are planned for next week if Parliament is prorogued again? If the Government are convinced that we will have a deal, why are we making preparations to leave without one? Can the Minister tell us whether he believes there is any likelihood that the House would vote to leave the EU without a deal, because I do not think there is? If we are going to leave without a deal, how can we support our agriculture and fisheries without passing the Agriculture and Fisheries Bills, which got so far before being shoved on to the backburner? I am sorry to have asked all those questions, but the fact is that I and this side do not believe that we are going to be fully ready to leave the EU on 31 October.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) seemed to criticise the fact that we have these four SIs before us this afternoon and indicated she felt it might be a way of filling time. But I thought she and all the Opposition parties wanted to be here to scrutinise issues relating to EU exit and that is exactly what we are doing this afternoon. However, I share her commendation to our civil servants. The teams who have been working on this and all other SIs have worked incredibly hard over many months.

I want to address the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood). I think that he and I are not as far apart as he suggested in his contribution. He will probably recall that I resigned from the last Government on 28 February precisely because I did not believe it was right to extend article 50 and delay—I believed that that would lead to a sequence of events culminating in something of a muddle and the need to do exactly the types of things we are doing now.

My right hon. Friend must not confuse the transitional arrangements that we have discussed in relation to this SI with the rather oddly named implementation period in the withdrawal agreement that he will be familiar with. I will give him one example of the type of thing the SI provides for. Currently, it is possible, under EU law, for the EU to recognise certification authorities in New Zealand, so that people can certify that apples they are exporting from New Zealand to the UK meet our standards. That reduces the need for us to carry out automatic checks on those apples when they arrive at a UK port. All the SI does is enable those existing certifications to carry on for that period of two years, giving people time to continue to trade—I know he is a great supporter of free trade, particularly with our Commonwealth friends—in that two-year period without having to apply for a new UK certificate.

I turn now to the points made by the shadow Ministers. On those made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew), in general, the primary purpose of the SI is to extend the transitional periods to reflect the fact that the departure date has moved from the end of March to 31 October. That is the primary purpose, but as I said there are one or two other areas where there were very minor mistakes. He asked for some examples. In one case, the term “appropriate authority” was used, when it is clear it is a reserved matter, so we should have used the term “Secretary of State”. It is a minor error. The legislation as drafted probably would have worked but, given that we were revisiting this anyway to change the transitional periods, it seemed a good opportunity to put that other error right.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of olives, olive oil, silk worms and tobacco. It would not have been the end of the world if that had remained in the SI but, again, given that we needed to return to change the transitional periods, it seemed a matter of good housekeeping to remove those references where they were not appropriate. We would never have to recognise a producer organisation for the purposes of those sectors since we do not produce olives, olive oil, silk worms or tobacco, and as the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) pointed out, there is very little prospect of us doing so. In earlier SIs, we deleted similar provisions for home-grown UK bananas, because on a similar analysis we decided that was unlikely in the foreseeable future. This simply follows the same logic in those additional areas.

The hon. Member for Stroud raised several other issues about the Agriculture Bill and pointed out that I had tabled many amendments. Indeed, I made great use of my freedom as a Back Bencher to table some amendments. He will be aware, however, that now I am back at the Dispatch Box, I agree with collective Government and support a collective Government position. That is why those amendments have mysteriously disappeared.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of marketing standards and asked whether we have the enforcement capabilities for that. I can confirm that we have. We have Her Majesty’s marketing inspectorate, which sits within the Rural Payments Agency and which already does all the work involving marketing standards on behalf of the European Union, and the UK had its own horticultural marketing inspectorate well before we even joined the European Union.

On the issue raised by the hon. Member for Ipswich, a number of statutory instruments that are currently before the House have undergone a sifting process to correct minor errors but in general to ensure that the SIs that were laid before March remain relevant for a 31 October departure date. He is, of course, aware that the European Union (Withdrawal) Act provides for subsequent SIs after we have left, if it is simply a question of correcting minor errors of the sort that I have mentioned today. He will also be aware that there is provision for an emergency procedure should that be necessary.

I hope that I have managed to address most of the points that have been raised. I commend the regulations to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That the draft Common Organisation of the Markets in Agricultural Products (Transitional Arrangements etc.) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 24 July, be approved.