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Food Safety Standards: Brexit

Volume 788: debated on Thursday 11 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that, after Brexit, current United Kingdom food safety standards are not undermined by the import of poorer quality food produced to lower animal welfare standards from the United States and other potential trading partners.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. We want to advance the consumption of great British food both at home and abroad. Our food is held in high repute thanks to our animal welfare and food safety standards. The withdrawal Bill will transfer on to the UK statute book all EU food safety and animal welfare standards. Our current high standards, including import requirements, will apply when we leave the EU.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but is he aware that Liam Fox has agreed with American officials that their trade talks will be held in secret and that the US Commerce Secretary has said that scrapping the hygiene rules that hinder US exports of food to the UK and others would be a,

“critical component of any trade discussion”?

Is he also aware that Liam Fox is previously on record as saying that there is nothing wrong with chlorine-dipped poultry, despite its use to disguise huge bacterial contamination, such as salmonella and E. coli, which arise from its inadequate hygiene standards? The Government are clearly desperate for a US trade deal, so how can we be sure that the interests of British consumers and farmers will not be sacrificed in pursuit of that bigger prize, or are the Government ultimately prepared to walk away if compromise is demanded in those negotiations?

My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity, because clearly, as I said, the withdrawal Bill will bring back legal requirements on to our statute book. Yes, of course we want to have a vibrant trade arrangement with the United States of America—I hope all your Lordships wish to have vibrant trade arrangements around the world; we are a trading nation after all—but we have been very clear that we are not going to water down or compromise on the standards I have set out. Indeed, they will be transferred into our own domestic law. The very points that the noble Baroness raised will be on the statute book.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Food Standards Agency will have a key role to play in ensuring high food safety standards? This will obviously have resource and staff implications, and a whole raft of regulatory instruments will presumably have to be adopted. What is the Government’s proposed timetable to approve them?

My Lords, all the agencies, including the Food Standards Agency, play a hugely important role in terms of consumer confidence. It is important that we ensure that the resources are put in place—as we are doing in Defra, with additional resources to deal with many of these things—so that we can continue to have the confidence that we should have. I want to be clear again: we will not compromise on the standards that will be on the statute book. Those are the requirements that we will adhere to in any trade deals.

My Lords, if these standards had been established under existing EU trade arrangements, a mandate would have been sought and secured by the Commission from the Council and then published for the Parliament. The Government have not done that with this Parliament. A public scoping exercise would have been carried out and published, and this Parliament through our MPs would have been able to consider that, too. That also is not happening. Why are the Government proposing under this working group fewer opportunities for this Parliament to intervene and less transparency even at this stage of the discussions? In respect of the trade Bill, the mechanism that Parliament would have as a result of this exercise is an unamendable single statutory instrument. Why are the Government proposing less transparency and fewer opportunities for parliamentary accountability than we currently have by virtue of our membership of the European Union?

My Lords, I shall take the opportunity to take that question away and look at it so that I give a proper and detailed reply, of which I shall put a copy in the Library, because it is important. This Government are absolutely clear that we want trade deals. They will be reputable for all sorts of reasons that I have outlined, and we certainly want transparency.

My Lords, for some time after Brexit and with many countries, we will inevitably trade under WTO standards. There seems to be some uncertainty as to what extent animal welfare standards such as stocking rates of broiler chickens and so on can be used as conditions of trade under WTO rules. Have the Government sought legal advice on this? If so, can the UK legally demand that certain standards be met under WTO rules?

My Lords, as I have said, on our statute book will be all the current EU welfare standards, but there are some recent WTO cases which we think will be helpful and we are giving them active consideration.

I commend the Minister for the firmness with which he has put the case that the Government will not deviate from our standards. That is to be commended, and of course it is noted. That being the case, will he have a word with his colleagues in the other departments who keep saying that Brexit will lead to cheap food? It is inconsistent to talk about cheap food, because the only way that can arise is if our own poultry industry, pig industry and beef industry are decimated by cheaper imports based on lower standards.

I have said what I have said, my Lords, which is that I am absolutely clear that we will not water down any of our standards. They will already be on the statute book when Parliament has enacted the EU withdrawal Bill. They will be UK statute.

My Lords, no Parliament can bind its successor. What assurance can the Minister give us that, on day 2 after leaving the European Union, there could not be proposals to water down those rules? Will we be told that the 17.4 million people who voted to leave wanted to change the rules to get a deal with the United States?

The noble Baroness has set out the position: that no Parliament can bind its successors. All I have been absolutely clear in saying is that the direction of travel of this Government is that we are not watering down; there will be requirements on the UK statute book. It would be for Parliament to decide in the future what it wanted to do, but I have been absolutely clear about the direction of travel.