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Brexit: Food Security

Volume 794: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what planning they have undertaken to ensure food security post-Brexit in the event of there not being any deal reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

My Lords, the UK has a high degree of food security built on access to diverse sources of supply as well as domestic production. Defra is preparing for exit alongside all relevant government departments, including through the cross-Whitehall Border Delivery Group, which is co-ordinating dialogue with ports, airports and their users. Defra has engaged closely with businesses and trade associations across the food and drinks sector at official and ministerial level and will continue to do so.

My Lords, does the Minister understand that lack of confidence in the Government to deliver even a workable Brexit deal means that major supermarkets and food suppliers are already stockpiling and even now are running out of warehouse space? The Public Accounts Committee in the other place has warned the Government that their contingency plans that the Minister outlined could well lead to increased risk to food safety and of smuggling. Can the Government give any guarantees to food producers who operate a just-in-time business model—not unlike the Government, it has to be said—that they will be able to continue to produce and deliver high-quality, safe food?

My Lords, it is absolutely clear that we have been working on this matter of preparedness at the border for nearly two years. We have issued 106 specific technical notices to help businesses, citizens and consumers prepare. They are all available on GOV.UK. It is really important that there is confidence in our food supply—and there is. There always has been, because we have the supply chains. We are working with businesses and it is up to them: it is a matter of commercial decision as to what they do by way of their materials. But we are working extremely strongly with businesses so that there is a strong food supply.

My Lords, as a farmer I find the idea of food shortages if there is no deal both scaremongering and proven nonsense. Does my noble friend agree that domestic production plays a crucial role in our food security and that the high standards and quality of our produce is recognised both abroad and at home? Surely we should encourage people to buy British.

My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer and my short reply to my noble friend is—yes to all three. It is very important to recognise that the UK’s current production-to-supply ratio is 60% for all food and 75% for indigenous-type foods. This is why we have a very strong domestic supply and other sources. We have excellent food in this country, which we are exporting to the degree of £22 billion last year—and, yes, we should buy British.

Are all sections of government and all departments in Whitehall signed up to the principle that we will never import food into the UK that is produced by methods that are illegal for UK farmers?

My Lords, I have confirmed that a number of times at the Dispatch Box and I will do so again. On the specific issue of hormone-treated beef, the UK has transposed EU Council directive 96/22/EC. On chlorine-washed chicken, we already have provisions through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. We have a very strong record, in this country and abroad, for environmental protection of our food and high standards of animal welfare. That is how we are going to trade around the world and we are certainly not going to compromise that.

Perhaps the Minister can provide some reassurance on behalf of many of us in this House who remember life before we joined the European Community—the Common Market, as it then was. In those years there was no need for people to stockpile food. Supplies of medicines reached our hospitals and our pharmacists during that period. People could freely travel to the countries of the Common Market without great difficulty. It was even possible for planes to take off from British airports and land without hindrance at European airports. If we reminded ourselves of these facts about the past, it might enable us to make more rational decisions about the future.

My Lords, this great country is going to have a very strong future. It will be outside the European Union, but we will want to have very strong co-operation with our friends in the EU 27. The noble Lord is absolutely right. In a global economy we are trading around the world—as, indeed, is the EU. The EU is trading with countries that are not members of the EU. We all want to do trade together. That is why I very much hope that a successful deal will be concluded—because it is in everyone’s interests. But the noble Lord is absolutely right: this country will prosper whatever the scenario.

My Lords, there is great concern that a careless Brexit will pose a threat to the UK’s short-term food security, when it is vital that a genuinely sustainable food strategy for the whole UK should be developed. It is important for high food standards to remain at the heart of any trade deals. Is the Minister able to assure the House that the Government will provide clarity on their proposed migration policy and consider the contribution that non-UK citizens of the EU make to the quantity and quality of the UK’s food supply and services?

My Lords, clearly, Defra and the Home Office will need to consider these matters because we need people to help us in the agricultural and horticultural sector. But I repeat to the noble Baroness that we have very strong domestic production. We also source food from around the world. As I have said from the Dispatch Box before, on the issue of disease or pests or whatever, we have a very sophisticated industry that has other sources of supply—but I am not anticipating that, because EU food producers want to bring their food here and we want to export our wonderful food to them.