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Protection of UK Food Standards

Volume 677: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Maria Caulfield.)

In Scotland and across the entire United Kingdom, we produce some incredible food. In the borders, where I live and which I have the privilege of representing in this place, we have many fine examples, including Standhill Farm tomatoes near Denholm; Shaw’s Fine Meats in Lauder; Hardiesmill ethical Scotch beef, which has been enjoyed on the Orient Express and is reared north of Kelso; ice cream produced by the Giacopazzi family in Eyemouth; Border Berries near Rutherford, which is one of Scotland’s last remaining outdoor berry farms; and Born in the Borders brewery outside Jedburgh, which creates real ale using barley grown in the neighbouring rolling fields of the borders.

I love the local foods produced in the borders, and I think that more people around the world should be able to enjoy food from Scotland and the rest of Britain too. That is why I am so excited by the opportunities that the global trade deals will offer to Scotland and the United Kingdom. We should be proud not just of the amazing foods that we produce but of the fact that they are of the highest quality and meet the highest standards of production in the world. Consumers in our country not only have an extensive choice of foods but can be assured that they meet the highest quality.

Is it not the fact that we have such high standards in this country that makes our foodstuffs and other products produced in Scotland so in demand across the rest of the world? Should we not be doing everything in our power to make sure that we can export more of what we produce in this country because it is so good?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I entirely agree. I will come back to it, because there are some great success stories about where we have been able to export our food products, not just from Scotland but across the entirety of the UK, around the world.

I want to make some progress.

Sadly, in recent weeks the standards of the food we consume here in Britain has been conflated into a debate about our ability to trade on the international stage. As the son of a Berwickshire farmer who has the privilege of representing the rural communities of the Scottish borders, I know from very personal experience the truth of the saying that

“the cultivation of the earth is the most important labour of man.”

That is why it is so important that we get the Agriculture Bill currently going through this Parliament right—right for Scottish producers and right for Scottish consumers. Consumers rightly want high-welfare produce, and if our trading partners want to access the UK market, they must be required to meet those standards. Farmers and consumers have the right to expect no less.

Does the hon. Gentleman think, then, that food imports should be produced to the same high standards as UK food production, and would he therefore agree that protection should be placed in legislation to make sure that that good food quality is protected?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. If I could ask her to be patient for a little while, I am going to come on to that very point.

Does it concern my hon. Friend that in Scotland we appear to have a campaign of disinformation that suggests that a vote took place in the House of Commons to reduce food standards in the United Kingdom, yet I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that no such vote took place?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that point, which neatly leads on to the next part of my speech.

There has been considerable discussion about food standards in relation to international trade, and, unfortunately, a high degree of misinformation about what will happen to our food standards. We are told by campaign groups and the Opposition parties that Parliament voted against protecting our food standards and that that opened the door to substandard food supplies flooding on to shop shelves. That is utter nonsense, and I want to use this debate to put the record straight.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech. I very much enjoyed the culinary tour of his constituency—I am just about ready for my tea, so he has made me very hungry. I spoke to him earlier, to seek his permission to intervene. Hailing from the constituency of Strangford, with its thriving agrifoods sector, I believe it is imperative that we remember that many of the standards to which we hold ourselves are actually higher than those that the EU has determined to be necessary. We must continue to accept only foods of the highest quality that bear British approval across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As I always say, better together.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. It is important to record that the UK Government have been very clear that they will never compromise on those food standards.

In Scotland, Food Standards Scotland will continue to ensure that all food imports comply with the UK’s high safety standards. The Government have also made it clear that they will examine options on labelling and better consumer information, including voluntary animal welfare assurance schemes and Government-backed labelling. Our Ministers will also work across the globe to enhance welfare standards through bilateral promotion with trade partners and advocacy of animal welfare and environmental issues in the World Trade Organisation and the World Organisation for Animal Health.

I think that I should declare an interest, Madam Deputy Speaker, by pointing out that my younger brother is a maker of highland cheese. Highland crofters and farmers do very well out of the fact that the image of highland food is that it is of the highest standard. None of us wants to see standards lowered; I think that we in this Chamber speak with one voice in that regard. However, the general public are very discerning when they shop, and they are becoming ever more discerning as time goes by. I think that the more we push and advertise the sheer quality of Scottish, highland and Northern Irish food products, the better we will do.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making the crucial point. Without doubt, we produce food of an exceptionally high value. I do not think that consumers in this country always recognise the value of the food we produce, and how lucky we are to live in a country where we can be assured of it.

The Government have made a commitment that in all our trade negotiations we will not compromise on the UK’s high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards. We are, and will remain, firmly committed to upholding those high standards outside the EU. Crucially, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will transfer all existing EU food safety provisions, including existing import requirements, on to the UK statute book, where they will be enshrined in law.

I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman praising the quality of good Scottish produce, and I am sure that view is shared across the House. He made a serious point about misinformation. Does he not understand that the National Farmers Union has expressed real concerns about cheap food imports flooding the UK market and undercutting our excellent-quality produce? Is he saying that the NFU is spreading misinformation?

I will move on to that point shortly. I have had a very robust conversation with NFU Scotland. It claims to support trade and to support the amendment to the Agriculture Bill that would have stopped our ability to do that trade. It cannot on the one hand say that it wants to support the ability of Scottish farmers and food producers to export, and on the other hand support an amendment that would have pulled the rug from under them. That is a conversation I have had with the NFU, and that is the purpose of this debate.

Our import standards, which are enshrined in UK law, include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in domestic and imported products, so that means no hormone-injected beef. Our standards also set out that no product other than water is approved for decontaminating poultry carcases, so that means no chlorine- washed chicken, despite what we hear from opposition parties and some parts of the media. Any changes to existing food safety legislation would require new legislation to be brought before Parliament.

As I have suggested, Scottish and British farmers have a great deal to gain from the lowering of trade barriers, which will allow them to access new markets for our high-quality produce. We need those new trade deals with other countries to enable our farmers and other businesses to expand the range and volume of products for export around the world. Let us take, for example, the export of Scottish malt and grain to non-EU countries such as Japan, or the enormous potential for further growth of Scottish red meat exports. Last year, the total value of UK red meat exports rose by 13% to £1.5 billion, with 661,000 tonnes of pork, lamb and beef shipped globally from the UK. It was one of the strongest years on record.

I am sure none of us in the House, regardless of our views on the European Union, American beef or American chicken, want to prevent our farmers in any constituency from exporting their high-quality food. However, the very consumers the hon. Member mentioned a few minutes ago fill my inbox daily, concerned about the quality of food that will be imported into this country. They are afraid that the food that will appear on supermarket shelves will be cheaper and of less good quality than what is produced in this country. We want to protect those people.

Order. The hon. Gentleman has been very generous in taking interventions. Any interventions need to be short, because there is limited time for the debate and I am sure that the Minister wants sufficient time to wind up.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) explains to her constituents that she voted for an amendment that would have restricted the choice for consumers in supermarkets and stopped Scottish farmers and other businesses exporting. She would have stopped them doing the trade deals. I will come on to those points in a bit more detail shortly.

Within the overall increase in trade to non-EU countries, there are further opportunities to be had, particularly across Asia in markets other than China, such as Taiwan, Singapore and especially Vietnam, to complement the trade we will continue to have with the European Union. Scottish farmers can lead the way on those opportunities. Lowering trade barriers is key to realising that ambition.

It is important to put ourselves in a position where we can build on our successes, but if the contentious amendments to the Agriculture Bill had passed, such trading opportunities would have been lost, to the disadvantage of Scotland’s farming sector and the wider economy. If Scottish National party Members and others who supported the amendments had secured them, that would have effectively blocked the enhanced international trade opportunities for Scottish farmers and many other distinctive Scottish industries. It is also important to note that no current trade agreements include provisions to force partners to operate by another country’s domestic regulations and standards. If we insisted on that, we could not roll over the comprehensive economic and trade agreements with Canada and other parties such as South Africa and Japan. It would also call into question our refusal to accept a level playing field with the EU if we demand it elsewhere.

Trying to force all trading partners to produce to the exact same standard as the UK will only result in fewer export opportunities for Scottish farmers and cut them off from world markets.

I commend the hon. Member for securing this important debate. Like him, I have received countless emails and letters from my Coventry residents who are rightly concerned about a number of our protections, particularly food standards, post Brexit. Does he agree that we should aim for the highest possible standards and protect those that we already enjoy here in the UK?

I completely agree with the hon. Member. To reiterate my earlier point, UK imports and food standards have not changed as a consequence of our leaving the European Union. Cabinet Ministers have committed themselves at the Dispatch Box to maintaining food standards. The Prime Minister is committed to them, too. It is wrong to say that, just because we cannot control the production standards in another country, we cannot control our own import standards and food regulations. There is no other trade agreement whereby one country imposes its food production standards on another partner. It is also the case that WTO rules prevent such clauses in the trade deals that it governs.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his speech. Like him, I have many producers who are responsible for produce of outstanding quality that is renowned across the globe. However, does he agree that tonight’s debate is a useful opportunity to set the record straight? There has never been a Division in this House that has lowered animal welfare standards and, as he said, the EU withdrawal Act takes all the legislation from the EU that protects our environmental standards, food safety standards and animal welfare standards on to the UK statute book.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Despite all the misinformation from SNP Members, the reality—the facts—are somewhat different. If there is another trade agreement that allows one country to impose its production standards on another, show it to me. If I am wrong about the WTO rules, I am happy to take an intervention from somebody who might be able to correct me.

Thank you so much. I was going to refer to the US ambassador, who made it very clear recently that the US would not accept a US-UK trade deal unless US food standards were accepted within the UK. What does the hon. Gentleman say to the US ambassador?

The UK Government Ministers who represent us in these negotiations have made it very clear that food standards will not be reduced as a consequence of any trade deals. It is very interesting that the hon. Lady has not disputed my points or provided any evidence to support the case that one country’s trade deal with another country has imposed its production standards on that trading partner. Nor indeed has she been able to dispute the point that the World Trade Organisation rules ban such clauses in trade agreements. [Interruption.] We should be under no illusions: those on the SNP Benches, and indeed elsewhere, who were arguing for the amendments to be imposed were, at best, naive about the consequences of their actions or, at worst, reckless with the future of not just our food exporters, but every other business—[Interruption.]

Welcome to the world of Scottish politics, Madam Deputy Speaker.

To continue, those who were advocating those amendments were, at best, naive about the consequences of their actions or, at worst, reckless with the future of not just our food exporters, but every other business that hopes to export its produce around the world.

An isolationist approach may be one that the SNP wants to advocate, but I want Scotland and Britain to take their places as global trading partners, so we can sell our top-quality food produce to every corner of the planet. Others may want to restrict the choices available to our businesses, but I hope that SNP Members will come clean and explain that they want to restrict our ability to trade. Their isolationist, anti-trade policy is not one that I think the people of Scotland, or across Britain, want to support.

I am entirely in agreement with the desire to create a thriving domestic agricultural industry that is not undercut by cheap foreign imports, while maintaining and promoting high animal welfare, environmental and food standards abroad. But the answer is not to pass legislation that would create an extreme, blanket, protectionist approach, and to slam doors in the faces of our exporters. We need a robust framework that provides support for primary producers to provide security of food supply, while expanding the global trade opportunities to get high-quality Scottish produce on to kitchen tables in as many countries around the world as possible. I believe that the Agriculture Bill provides a platform for those expanded trade opportunities, while maintaining the tough environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards that we all want to see maintained. I know that Scottish farmers have what it takes to compete with the rest of the world, and Scottish farmers can be confident that this UK Government will back them all the way in securing the markets that they need to prosper in future.

I would like to start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) for securing this important debate. This is a subject that Members across the House are rightly passionate about, and not just Scottish colleagues—all four nations are well represented this evening. It has been good to hear from Northern Ireland, Coventry, the highlands and many other places in the course of the debate.

I am proud that I, with all my colleagues on the Government Benches, stood on a manifesto commitment that, in all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.

It is always good to hear about farms in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As a farmer’s son, he is well placed to champion Scottish farming and Scottish produce—I am not saying that only farmers’ children make good MPs, but it certainly helps. I know he feels that this is in contrast to those who have chosen to put nationalism before farming. I have fond memories of visiting his constituency and attending the ridings nearby, and I am pleased to hear that Kelso produce is being enjoyed around the world, even on the Orient Express.

I know that many Members were keen to get involved in this debate, and I look forward to speaking to them further about this important subject in the weeks and months ahead. Across the House, we are all united by a desire for British producers to sell their great produce around the world. The debate on how to promote high standards here while ensuring that we do not import goods produced to standards we find unacceptable is not new. It predates our departure from the EU, and will doubtless continue well after the end of the transition period.

To tackle this issue, we require a comprehensive package of measures, one of which is, of course, regulation. I would like to reaffirm once again the Government’s commitment to upholding our high environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards as we leave the EU. The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 will transfer all existing EU food safety provisions, including existing import requirements, on to the UK statute book after the transition period. Those requirements include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in domestic and imported products, and they make it clear that no products, other than potable water, are approved to decontaminate poultry carcases.

Transparency is also key to this debate. We are going into all our trade negotiations, including with the US, clear that our standards will be upheld in future deals. With regard to the US and other live talks, our negotiating objectives, economic assessment and updates from the initial round have been provided to the House. We will continue to provide further detail as we progress. It is a great pleasure to have my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) here for this debate. The Department for International Trade and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are working closely together at the moment to promote British produce around the world.

All trade deals are also subject to the scrutiny procedures laid out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which means that once free trade agreements have been signed, they need to be laid in Parliament for 21 sitting days, alongside an explanatory memorandum, before they can be ratified and enter into force. There will be ample opportunities for scrutiny.

We know that one of the concerns raised by farmers is the flooding of the UK market with cheap imports from America. It looks pretty clear, apparently, that the US negotiators will oppose labelling of their products in the UK as US products, so that consumers will not know which food comes from the US. Is the Minister concerned about that?

I thank the hon. Lady, whom I definitely consider to be a friend, for her intervention. Labelling was raised by a few Members. We have committed ourselves to a serious and rapid examination of what can be done through labelling in the UK market to promote high standards and high-welfare goods, and we will consult on this at the end of the transition period. I would like to reassure her that we have already started work on that consultation. Labelling is undoubtedly one of the tools in the armoury that we will need if we are to produce the situation that we all want—namely, to trade around the world while promoting high standards.

The Minister is very kind. I wonder whether she is prepared to comment on my remarks about the US ambassador having said recently that, basically, the UK would have to accept US standards in the UK if it wanted a trade deal.

That was answered extremely well earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, so I will carry on, if that is all right.

The Government have in place a range of stakeholder and expert groups that feed into our policy specifically on trade. They include the strategic trade advisory group, the agrifood expert trade advisory group—that trips off the tongue—and the sustainability expert trade advisory group. We are always looking at how to enhance representation on those groups—although I do not know that the US ambassador would be a candidate to be on one of them—and we are keen to put in place measures to ensure that we keep the groups as closely informed of the negotiations as possible.

DEFRA also runs various supply chain advisory groups, such as the arable group, the livestock group and the food and drink panel. We are strongly supported by expert advice on food standards. Colleagues will know that the UK’s food standards, for both domestic production and imports, are overseen by the Food Standards Agency and, indeed, Food Standards Scotland. Those are independent agencies that provide advice to both the UK and Scottish Governments. They will of course continue to do so, to ensure that all food imports comply with our high safety standards. The Government are and always will be keen to continue to work closely with stakeholders across the food chain to understand their concerns about the impact of new trade deals, as well as the opportunities that they will give us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk spoke passionately about the opportunities that the UK’s being an independent trading nation presents for British farming and, indeed, for the public at large—sentiments that I really share, as, I hope, does everybody across the House. I am confident that, from what I have laid out, the House should be reassured that we will both protect food standards through the range of measures that I briefly outlined, and really seize the benefits of our new trade policy for all people and parts of the UK.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.