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Zoonotic Disease Eradication and Control (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019

Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2019

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Zoonotic Disease Eradication and Control (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019.

My Lords, this instrument ensures that there will continue to be a functioning regulatory and legislative regime for protecting human health against zoonotic disease—disease that may transfer from animals to humans—when the UK leaves the EU.

The instrument extends to and applies to the United Kingdom. Part 4 makes very minor consequential changes to secondary legislation for England and on behalf of Scotland and Northern Ireland. The same amendments will be made shortly by the Welsh Government to their legislation. We have worked with the devolved Administrations on this instrument and they have given consent.

The current EU requirements set targets to reduce the prevalence of salmonellas of public significance in poultry. Targets are achieved through control programmes, regular sampling for the presence of salmonella and actions such as culling where it is found. Where poultry and hatching eggs are traded between EU member states and other countries, the results of salmonella sampling must be shown on health certificates. Trade with countries outside the EU is permitted only if the country is on a list of approved third countries with equivalent controls.

This SI makes technical amendments such as removing or amending references to EU institutions such as Community “reference laboratories” and “the Commission”, which will no longer be appropriate after EU exit. There are no changes to the standards set out in the EU regulations.

Part 2 of the instrument also provides for a series of legislative functions which take those powers currently held by the Commission and transfers them to the appropriate Ministers in the UK. The powers transferred permit changes to procedural and technical matters, including targets for the reduction of the prevalence of salmonella, detailed requirements for control programmes and specifying the responsibilities and tasks of laboratories. Imports of poultry and hatching eggs from the EU will be permitted on the same basis as now, but the regulation includes some minor changes to ensure that such imports continue to be accompanied by health certificates that show test results for salmonella. The changes also permit the Secretary of State to make changes to the list of third countries from whom imports of poultry and hatching eggs may be accepted. Where powers are transferred from the European Union to UK Administrations, I assure noble Lords that Ministers will be able to make statutory instruments regarding procedural and technical matters only, in the same way the Commission can in respect of the regulations at the moment.

Part 5 ensures that existing control programmes remain in place after exit day and that the reference laboratories carrying out testing and analysis can continue to operate without new designations. Although the regime will continue to function after we leave the EU much as it does now, transferring powers to the devolved Administrations means that instead of having a UK-wide target for the reduction of salmonella and a UK-wide national control programme, each Administration will have its own. The standards set out in the regulations will, nevertheless, remain the same. We have worked with the devolved Administrations on this instrument, and they have supported this approach.

We and the devolved Administrations have talked to our key stakeholders: the British Poultry Council and British Egg Industry Council. Key stakeholders understand that separate targets and control programmes are the inevitable consequence of transferring legislative functions to the devolved Administrations. We have assured them that we will continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations to help deliver a system that will not cause unnecessary complications for business.

The regime will continue to operate much as it does now. Defra officials have made an assessment of the potential impacts on business of separate targets and control programmes in each Administration and have estimated that the impacts are unlikely to be significant. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing this statutory instrument, which I welcome. I have a couple of questions for her, but I declare an interest of long ago—50 years—as an ex-poultry farmer, producing eggs for a very well-known breeding company which hatched the eggs and then sold the chickens to farmers commercially; I was a parent stock breeder. It is hugely important that imports are considered on the same basis as they are now; they need health certificates, so that is a very welcome confirmation.

The egg industry is hugely important and, from time to time, has had some great challenges over those years. We remember the egg scare during a certain lady’s time—Edwina Currie—which did the industry no good at all. The industry needs to know that it is batting on an even level, so I welcome this statutory instrument.

If I may, I shall raise again the question again that I previously mentioned briefly, but I did not come back to the Minister. We were having a conversation on salmonella before we started this debate, but the use of antibiotics falls within this ground. Some countries use antibiotics in a way we certainly would not here. There is not a direct link at the moment, but it may be—I would have to look to colleagues for confirmation—that it can be transposed from livestock to humans because of its excessive use. I am not sure of my ground on this, but I would not like the occasion to go by without raising this with the Minister again. I realise that this statutory instrument looks primarily to getting proper monitoring and control over salmonella, which is a hugely difficult disease within the industry if it is allowed to take hold. As a former-poultry farmer, I am well aware of the challenges that the industry faces. The one thing that it needs is to be able to trade fairly, and therefore the regulations are very welcome.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her comprehensive introduction to this fairly non-controversial statutory instrument. As has been said, it provides the protection of EU standards in UK law, particularly in relation to salmonella. I accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said: this is really important for our poultry farmers and egg producers.

The trade in live animals and hatching eggs between member states and third countries includes vaccination and antimicrobials to reduce disease transmission between the animals themselves and animal-to-human transmission of disease. It is important to ensure that the Government introduce legislation to keep health standards at the highest possible level in order to protect both animals and humans. Paragraph 2.4 of the Explanatory Memorandum indicates that animal health is a devolved matter, and therefore the power to amend targets on zoonotic diseases is also devolved.

There will be a UK-wide national control programme but each Administration will have their own targets for the reduction of salmonella. There is, therefore, the possibility of targets being reduced or increased. Northern Ireland, understandably, will have the same targets as Ireland and therefore will have the same targets as the rest of the EU. Can the Minister confirm that the regulations will be the same across the UK but that the targets could be different, especially in Northern Ireland? Can she also say what safeguards will be in place should a devolved Administration seek to reduce their target on salmonella?

The British Veterinary Association has expressed the view that maintaining surveillance networks with the EU should be a priority. Can the Minister detail the provision that is in place with the EU to ensure that intelligence will be shared to protect our biosecurity? Those comments apart, I am happy to support this SI.

My Lords, I, too, am happy to support this SI, and I thank the noble Baroness. My points are more or less the same as those that have already been raised, but I would like a little more clarification on the devolution relationship. As I understand it, this SI became subject to the affirmative resolution because of objections by some of the devolved Administrations—I am not sure which ones—but does that reflect a difference of approach in the various control regimes in the DAs? If so, what the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, has just referred to could well occur. We would have differential targets and therefore differential methodologies, which would seem to be going backwards. Nevertheless, this instrument or related ones transfer the responsibility to the devolved Administrations, and the veterinary profession in particular will need to know how that is to be pulled together and properly co-ordinated. It will need to know that there will be UK-wide machinery for ensuring that that happens, particularly in the event of a serious outbreak.

I have only two or three other questions. The title of the SI relates to zoonotic disease eradication in general but in practice it refers only to poultry and, specifically, to salmonella. There are other zoonotic diseases and other poultry diseases. There is bird flu and there are other, non-poultry diseases, and I am not clear why they are not covered in the same regulations. Presumably the Government will wish to make the same system apply to all potential animal-to-human transmitted diseases, and the issues of devolution and having a national standard control and eradication programme would be the same for other such diseases. As we know from the experience of other parts of the world, these have sometimes become quite serious challenges.

I think that the Minister answered my other query. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to imports from outside the EU and I was a bit alarmed to hear that, in a no-deal situation, there would immediately be free access for hatching eggs from the EU. I thought that was a reference to tariffs, because they would be zero-tariffed in the temporary tariff proposition. However, if you offer zero tariffs to the EU, under WTO rules you have to offer them to everybody else. Therefore, you might be faced with a higher level of importation challenging domestic egg production and the hatching process. The eggs may well come from countries with much lower health standards. I think the Minister said that while the tariff would be the same for EU and non-EU countries, the regulations would be different. I am not sure at what point that gets tested under the WTO rules, but hopefully that will be well down the line and we will have a more rational regime by then.

My only other question is on the digression issue. If we are to maintain high standards, keeping them at least as high as the EU, are the Government geared up to ensure that we will avoid reaching trade agreements with countries whose standards are somewhat lower and which present a higher risk of zoonotic diseases, or any animal diseases—quite apart from the specific issue of eggs which I referred to? In particular, this affects the domestic testing regime, as well as that for potential imports. We know there has been a bit of a rundown in the laboratory capability of the agriculture and food sector more generally, so are we confident that we have enough laboratory capacity here to ensure that we can check that new diseases are not developing, or appearing for the first time, in the UK? Clearly, some of that information has hitherto been provided by laboratories in the rest of the European Union.

Apart from that, and sorting out the devolution arrangements, which may turn out to be the most difficult part of this, I welcome this SI.

I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate today. It has been a short debate, but I am heartened by the support that this instrument has from all sides of the Committee. I thank noble Lords for raising some very important issues.

I thank my noble friend Lady Byford for her support. I agree that this is a hugely important industry. I do not have the facts and figures with me today, but it is a vital part of our agricultural sector. It is very important that it continues to trade fairly going forward—this links to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. Our standards must be as high as is appropriate. We must make sure that the health certificates of any imports are robust and that enforcement is strong, because it would be a concern should any diseases arrive from outside our shores. We must do what we can to protect the industry.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, asked why this measure is only for salmonella and whether this was another example of the Government’s management of their SI programme. This is slightly different, because there is different legislation for avian influenza, for example. That is covered under the Exotic Disease (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018 and there are a range of other pieces of legislation that link to that SI.

My noble friend Lady Byford mentioned antimicrobial resistance. This question is not wholly within the scope of these regulations, but the British Poultry Council reduced antibiotic use by 85% between 2013 and 2017, which is outstanding—that is a great development. We continue to have some of the lowest levels of antibiotic resistance in the EU.

I turn to an issue on which I may offer to write in addition to what I am able to say today: the devolved Administrations and Northern Ireland. The issue here is that this is devolved. The four nations that make up our country have to work together to ensure that we do not have gaps or significant divergence within our animal welfare legislation. While I am sure that both the industry and noble Lords would welcome as little divergence as possible, we must also understand that it was a decision by Parliament to make certain matters devolved to these Administrations. However, on the other side of that, we are working extremely closely with the devolved Administrations; it is in nobody’s interest for there to be divergence. Certainly, we should look not only to the EU but to other international trading partners to see how their regulations develop over time to ensure that our standards are at least as high as others’ and that the internal United Kingdom single market is not impacted by anything that the devolved Administrations may wish to do.

We already have future frameworks in place for how we will work with the devolved Administrations not just regarding animal welfare but covering all sorts of different areas which are legally devolved. We must respect that devolution. Essentially, the standards, when they come into force, will be the same, and the EU targets that are in place today will apply across all the devolved Administrations.

That situation will be the same in Northern Ireland; obviously, we will need to look at what happens in Ireland and the rest of the EU if there is no deal, but of course, we cannot guarantee that nor can we guarantee that we will follow in lockstep exactly what they do, because that is not the point of Brexit. Certainly, however, for the Northern Ireland situation, it makes it even more important that we look at the international situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, asked whether laboratories have sufficient resources. Salmonella testing is carried out by UK laboratories at the moment, approved by Defra and the Food Standards Agency. They will not be impacted by EU exit. The current reference laboratories in England and the similar laboratory in Northern Ireland will continue to operate as normal.

I believe that I have covered everything. I will certainly look at my answer on the devolved Administrations, in particular in respect of Northern Ireland, to see whether we can develop that any further, but in the meantime, I commend the regulations.

Motion agreed.

Committee adjourned at 6.08 pm.