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Aquatic Animal Health and Alien Species in Aquaculture (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019

Volume 795: debated on Wednesday 20 February 2019

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Aquatic Animal Health and Alien Species in Aquaculture (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019.

My Lords, as indicated, this instrument extends to Northern Ireland only. I am most grateful to officials from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs who are here today to assist with advice and support.

The island of Ireland has only 10 native species of fish, which is 40 fewer than in Great Britain and 80 fewer than continental Europe. With fewer species, in turn, it has fewer aquatic pests and diseases and consequently has a higher aquatic health status. We must ensure that this situation is maintained. We also acknowledge the vulnerability of the Northern Ireland aquatic environment and therefore the aquaculture industry to the introduction of diseases and alien species.

In Northern Ireland, aquaculture is a small but very valuable market. In 2017, Northern Ireland aquaculture production accounted for 1,248 tonnes of fin-fish at a value of £6.8 million on 36 active licensed sites, and 5,831 tonnes of shellfish at a value of £9.07 million on 43 active aquaculture sites. The sector employs 93 full-time and 33 part-time staff. Freedom from disease underpins international regulations on the trade in live animals and their products. Northern Ireland enjoys a higher health status than the rest of the UK, as I said, as many of the most serious aquatic animal diseases do not currently exist there. The maintenance and protection of Northern Ireland’s aquatic health status safeguards the interest of the aquaculture sector, as well as the public, who derive health and well-being benefits from angling and other recreational activities.

This instrument will provide the necessary technical corrections to the Aquatic Animal Health Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2009—the principal regulations—and the Alien and Locally Absent Species in Aquaculture Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012 to enable operability when the UK leaves the EU. These regulations do not introduce any policy changes.

The UK Government remain committed to restoring devolution in Northern Ireland. However, in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive, UK Ministers have decided that in the interest of legal certainty in Northern Ireland the Government will take through the necessary secondary legislation at Westminster for Northern Ireland, in close consultation with the relevant Northern Ireland department.

The proposed amendments fall into three main categories. First, cross-references to EU instruments are amended so that they are operable. These amendments modify cross-references to the 2006 directive contained in the principal regulations, and are essential to ensure the operability of those regulations. These are common amendments which appear throughout EU exit statutory instruments for Northern Ireland, England and Wales and Scotland. The amendments include: the substitution of references to “Member State” or “Member States” with references to “Northern Ireland”, “the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs”, “Competent Authority”, or “UK or a constituent UK territory”; the substitution of references to “EU” with references to “UK”; and the substitution of references to articles in the directive with references to provisions in the domestic Northern Ireland regulations that transposed the directive—for example,

“as if … the reference to Article 4 of Directive 2006/88 were to regulation 7”.

Some of those cross-references themselves contain further cross-references to the directive. In those cases, the cross-references have been followed through to modify all necessary provisions.

The second category is provisions which will be redundant or inoperable in Northern Ireland law after EU exit. This instrument makes an amendment to the Alien and Locally Absent Species in Aquaculture Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012. The amendment removes the reference to a representative of the European Commission being able to accompany an inspector from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

The last category is cross-references to directly applicable EU instruments to reflect technical amendments made to such instruments by other UK-wide SIs. Part II of annexe IV of directive 2006/88 contains a disease schedule which could have been modified only by the EU. It is to be replaced with a new annexe 1A inserted into Regulation 1251/2008 by the UK-wide Aquatic Animal Health and Alien Species in Aquaculture (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. That will enable the UK to amend the list in retained EU law following exit. The amendments are made to replace references to annexe IV of the directive with references to annexe 1A to the regulation, which will ensure correct references to retained EU law in domestic Northern Ireland regulations.

Given the unique biodiversity of the island of Ireland, DAERA officials work closely with their southern counterparts on a wide range of fish health issues, especially contingency planning, trade matters, disease and biosecurity. Co-operation on those matters was in place long before both countries joined the EU and will continue when the UK leaves it. There is a very close working relationship across the island of Ireland on fish health and aquaculture. For example, the all-island Bottom Grown Mussel Consultative Forum facilitates the management of the seed mussel fishery on an all-island basis. It consists of officials from government departments, scientists, enforcers, the Irish fisheries board and the aquaculture industry. The group has been instrumental in securing Marine Stewardship Council certification for Irish bottom-grown mussels. That prestigious status ensures premium market access for Ireland’s top-quality mussels, demonstrating that the sector is vigilant in disease prevention and control, maintains high biosecurity standards and is environmentally aware. MSC certification underpins industry and consumer confidence and is a lucrative marketing tool.

The intention of the instrument is to maintain the status quo and keep the aquatic animal health and alien species in aquaculture regimes functioning as now. It does not create new policy or change existing policy. As a result, there are not expected to be any significant impacts arising from it. In bringing forward this legislation, a workable legal framework underpinning business as usual will be preserved after exit for aquatic animal health and alien and locally absent species in aquaculture. As I said, the instrument will assist Northern Ireland with its very high aquatic health status, which it shares with the other part of the island of Ireland. I beg to move.

My Lords, we are expected to consider these statutory instruments in Grand Committee this afternoon about no deal, but imminently the Chamber will consider another string of statutory instruments regarding no deal at the same time. Incapable as I am of being in two places at once, I want to put on record that I think that situation is totally unacceptable. The more important business is of course in the Chamber, because it can actually approve the regulations rather than simply debating them. I think this is now the fourth time that this has happened. Last time, I made representations to the Government Chief Whip and the Opposition Chief Whip, but clearly those representations have not been effective—otherwise we would not be in this situation again today.

I do not intend to take any further part in the Grand Committee this afternoon, because I need to be in the Chamber, but I intend to speak on these regulations when they come to the Chamber, not least because there is very sparse attendance in the Grand Committee this afternoon, and I think other noble Lords would have wished to be here if they did not have to attend to their duties in the Chamber. I regard this debate as essentially unreasonable, in that it has been scheduled alongside the debates taking place in the Chamber. I do not think they will be able to substitute for the debate in the Chamber because they are happening at the same time.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for bringing this statutory instrument forward. He will be pleased to know that I do not oppose it; I just have a couple of questions. I remind the Committee that I chaired the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee next door for one term of five years.

My noble friend set out very clearly the importance of aquatic health to the whole of the island of Ireland. My question goes to the heart of this. I presume this is a no-deal statutory instrument; is that correct, or is it something that will continue in the event of a deal? I read with great interest of the trade deal that has been made with the Faroe Islands. I have visited those islands. I am very proud of my Danish heritage and that the Faroe Islands used to be a part of Denmark. I was intrigued to see that the United Kingdom is selling £6 million-worth of goods to the Faroe Islands, but importing £200 million of goods from them, most of which is fish, particularly shellfish. I understand that a lot of this is crabs. Will this pose a problem for Northern Ireland? Specifically, is the MSC the body that will continue to check all imports from what will effectively be third countries, including other European Union countries—the remaining 27 members of the European Union—at the point of entry? I should know the answer to this, but making the analogy with the Food Standards Agency in England, I want to ask what the relevant body will be and whether my noble friend shares my concern about ensuring that we maintain the excellent aquatic health that Northern Ireland currently has.

In paragraph 7.5 on page 5 of the Explanatory Memorandum—I think this is repeated in the next statutory instrument as well—I was delighted to see that the Government have very wisely chosen to maintain the equivalent or higher standards set by the World Organisation for Animal Health; I will not say it in French, even though I am quite proud of my French accent. I hope that is something that the Government intend to do going forward; I am sure we will discuss this. I am sure my noble friend agrees that it is absolutely vital that we maintain regulations regarding aquatic health in the EU. This is relevant because these will be third-country imports from the date of our leaving, if we leave with no deal.

My Lords, it is always with some sadness that we deal with a Northern Ireland issue, a part of this country that voted remain quite decisively yet is completely unrepresented in the other place. In fact, it is represented by a very extreme party of Brexit. However, we are where we are.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, that in my Select Committee this morning we looked at the Faroe Isles FTA and have brought it to the special attention of the House. It would be quite useful to debate it on the Floor of the House, even though it is only our 144th trading partner worldwide.

I thank the Minister for his excellent exposition of the SI. My first question is whether the island of Ireland will remain the single epidemiological—I always have difficulty in pronouncing that but I am sure Hansard will get it right—unit that it is at the moment, particularly given that the excellent state of disease over there, which the Minister stressed, is much better in many ways than it is in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. It is very important—clearly organisms do not understand land borders—that that unit remains the same whatever the circumstances of Brexit or otherwise.

Some of these aquaculture plants are owned by foreign investors, some in France, and I will be interested to hear from the Minister what phytosanitary controls he expects the EU, France or wherever products are exported to will start on day one of Brexit, particularly if there is a no-deal Brexit, which is really what these SIs are about. It is particularly important that the systems are in place. I know we have discussed this before, but where are we on the UK replacement for TRACES and its interaction with EU systems? It will have a major effect on friction in trade and on exports of these products from the Province.

One of the reasons that there has been Norwegian investment in salmon farms in the UK is to avoid the EU external tariff on a number of aquaculture products. I will be interested to understand whether the Government have made any calculation of the tariffs that will be applied to these markets post Brexit, if we leave on so-called WTO terms, and the effect that will have on this industry.

Lastly, I was interested to see that the Secretary of State gave an effective undertaking at the NFU conference in Birmingham that tariffs will not be completely removed for the agricultural industry. Will aquaculture be included in that pledge?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear introduction and for the courtesy of meeting us beforehand. I also thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I remind the Minister and other noble Lords who have been with us on the journey of these SIs that we remain concerned about the whole process for dealing with them. My noble friend Lord Adonis raised one of the issues, but there are a number of other process issues. I do not intend to repeat them today, but the Minister will be well aware of our concerns. For example, we do not have the aquatic animal health and alien species in aquaculture regulations here today, although the Explanatory Memorandum says they should be linked to this SI. That is just one of the issues about the rather haphazard way in which these SIs are being tabled for consideration.

However, we are broadly in agreement with these regulations. They seem to do their best to maintain the status quo in aquaculture in Northern Ireland. It is clearly important to have a strong biosecurity framework which protects animal health and gives maximum protection from imported and exported disease, so it is important that these regulations are in place from day one.

I reiterate that it is a great regret to us that we do not have a functioning Northern Ireland Executive, so that we have to make decisions in their absence. Perhaps if we were not taking up all government time on the distraction of Brexit the Government would have more time to resolve the huge political challenges that face the UK, but perhaps that is an issue for another day.

On the specifics of this SI, the Minister referred to the close co-operation of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, referred to their shared interests, which are inevitable because they share inland waterways and a coastal aquaculture. Obviously there is a particular danger of cross-contamination within those waterways. But have the Government of the Republic of Ireland been consulted on the content of this SI, and have they registered that they are content with our proposals, given that they have such a lot in common with us?

Also, can the Minister explain in more detail how the buffer zones are intended to work? When I read the SI and the Explanatory Memorandum, I was unclear whether this was a new legislative function, and whether this is imposed around each separate aquatic business or on a larger geographical basis. Does this help protect the waterways between Northern Ireland and the Republic?

Finally, I pick up the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Macintosh. The Explanatory Memorandum explains in paragraph 7.5 that EU aquatic animal health standards, as we have them at the moment, are higher than international standards, and that if we do not adhere to EU standards in the future, that could result in the UK being unable to trade products with the EU and third countries. It goes on to say that the Government have, therefore,

“decided to maintain regulations regarding aquatic animal health at or above EU standards”.

We very much welcome this approach. It is an approach that we believe should be applied more widely across other food and animal trade issues which will be dealt with in other SIs scheduled for consideration. It could have been applied in our debate last week on pesticides, for example, but the Government took a different approach on that issue and set up a separate UK regulatory regime, which was not linked to the existing EU one.

Can the Minister clarify the actual clause in the SI that gives effect to this policy? Can he also explain the circumstances in which the principle of applying standards at least as good as those of the EU will apply in future SIs, as we all have an interest in this being rolled out more widely? I look forward to his response.

My Lords, I am most grateful for a very thought-provoking debate on these matters. I emphasise that the amendments in this instrument are purely about technical changes to ensure that all the arrangements that are being brought over into our statute book are operable and so forth. A number of points were made; if I could run through them and then, if there are any others, I might receive some assistance.

Both my noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, referred to equivalent or higher standards. The Explanatory Memorandum states that:

“EU law regarding aquatic animal health set standards equivalent or higher than the international standards set by the … OIE”.

We want to ensure that we are able to trade with our European partners and others post Brexit. Therefore it is vital that our aquatic animal health status is at least of equivalent or a higher standard, to ensure that there are no barriers from a disease perspective. As I have explained, particularly in Northern Ireland, the health status is very high, and there are far fewer aquatic diseases in the island of Ireland. The UK, and Northern Ireland in particular, might want to diverge precisely to set higher standards. We will be able to do so, so that we remain focused on biosecurity and proactive in preventing disease. As I said in my opening remarks, with the far fewer fish diseases that there are on the island of Ireland, that is an absolute imperative.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, mentioned the single epidemiological unit. It will of course remain. It actually does not relate to Europe; this is an arrangement agreed by the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly. As I hope I have outlined, it is absolutely essential if the two Administrations are to deal effectively with ensuring that there is a healthy status.

As I said, there is excellent co-operation and collaboration between DAERA and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in aquatic animal health and aquaculture. That collaboration is regular and extensive. Both departments work closely with research institutes, such as the Marine Institute in Galway and the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast on a range of fish health issues. Also, the north/south fisheries liaison group involves co-operation on operational issues relating to inland fisheries management. It was established by Inland Fisheries Ireland and its parent department, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment in the Republic of Ireland, DAERA in Northern Ireland and the Loughs Agency. That is important because, if I remember rightly, the five sea loughs are cross-border. The Loughs Agency is a cross-border implementation body, established under the Belfast Good Friday agreement. In addition, there is a north/south standing scientific committee for inland fisheries. I have many other examples of the intrinsic way both parts of the island of Ireland work on these matters.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, asked specifically what consultation there had been with the Irish Government. Of course, as a matter of courtesy, DAERA will inform them of these technical changes at the next bilateral, but there was no formal discussion because, with the continuum of all the fora I have described, this is how it will be operable in Northern Ireland. As a matter of courtesy, DAERA of course has extensive and regular dialogue.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, asked about buffer zones. The wording on buffer zones in this instrument is consistent across England, Wales and Scotland. There is no conferral of a legislative power. DAERA is not transposing article 49(2) of the 2006 directive, but merely ensuring that references to it in the principal regulations, or to provisions that cross-refer to it, operate properly by referring to “the competent authority” rather than “the member state”. The power for DAERA, as the competent authority, to establish buffer zones is precisely to prevent or to limit the spread of disease. The key point is that that is already conferred by Regulation 27 of the Aquatic Animal Health Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2009, which transposes article 49 of Directive 2006/88/EC. I am sorry for what seems rather a considerable number of words, but they are to show that it is within DAERA as the competent authority to establish those buffer zones.

To my noble friend Lady McIntosh I say that, yes, this is a matter for a no-deal scenario but, whether the United Kingdom leaves with no deal or not—obviously, the Government are working extremely hard with others to secure a deal—clearly some of these technical operability points would have to be attended to at some point. I do not believe that a lot of our work would have to be attended to to get it into the prism of being UK or Northern Ireland-compliant. As the competent authority, DAERA will also continue to inspect all live fish imports. The FSA in Northern Ireland has a role in relation to products going for human consumption. The MSC is a certification body only—it does not have enforcement powers in Northern Ireland.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh also raised the question of crabs. Northern Ireland is a strong exporter of crabs landed in the Province, and they are largely sold to the EU, but this should not affect any crabs exported from the Faroe Islands. I was interested in the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, about the Faroe Islands, which, no doubt, will be a matter for further consideration and discussion.

The issue of tariffs is still under consideration by the Government, and the Secretary of State said yesterday at the NFU conference that it is matter on which there is considerable focus.

On the question of the export health certificates, the UK remains committed to not imposing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic under any circumstances. In a no-deal scenario, it is assumed that the EU will require an export health certificate for all exports of products of animal origin, which includes all fishery and aquaculture products. For live exports of aquatic animals, fish health certification will be required to meet EU standards—I conjecture that that would apply to Northern Ireland produce, for the reasons I have described. Consignments approved for export will have to be inspected by an official inspector before departure; that will be an increased imposition on current trading arrangements and will ultimately fall to DAERA resources.

I wonder whether there are any other points that I need to answer; if there are any, I will look again at Hansard. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, that with Defra business I will use every endeavour to inform all interested noble Lords. Those who contacted the official on the telephone number found in the back of the Explanatory Memorandum—including, I think, the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Parminter—have said to me, “This is wonderful because it so rarely happens”. That is purpose of Defra being a helping hand and not a heavy one, so I encourage that. I informed a number of Northern Ireland Peers that the debate was happening, to say what it was about. They obviously thought the discussions were technical and on operability, but I am very keen that there is this dialogue in the Moses Room. A lot of detailed discussions can take place in the Moses Room. I am mindful of what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said about further discussions, but the truth is that all the noble Lords I would expect to see on an issue such as this, where there is a specialism and an interest, are here.

I will look at Hansard to see which areas I might not have precisely covered, but on the basis that I think I have covered as many as I can at the moment, I commend the regulations.

Motion agreed.