Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, nutritional-related labelling, composition and standards are regulated to protect public health. It is essential that food businesses and enforcement officers understand the specific nutrition-related rules that must be complied with. This instrument enables that, making technical amendments to ensure that the regulatory framework remains functional throughout the UK from 1 January 2021. It implements no policy changes.
Trade from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK will take place as it does now. At the end of the transition period, businesses in any part of the UK may continue to place their goods in any part of the UK internal market without new restrictions.
Primarily, this instrument reflects the Northern Ireland protocol by amending the Nutrition (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 and revoking the Nutrition (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019. It also remedies deficiencies in retained European Union nutrition legislation which have come into force since March 2019. It delivers continuity for businesses and consumers by allowing nutritional products to be manufactured and sold to the same world-leading standards.
By way of background, I am sure that everyone will welcome a brief summary of the 2019 regulations. Made in preparation for our exit from the EU, those regulations make technical amendments, changing redundant EU-specific references and transferring functions and powers currently held by the European Commission to the appropriate authorities in each of the UK’s constituent nations. This is with the explicit aim of mirroring the existing regulatory system following the end of the transition period.
However, this instrument is now needed to give effect to the Northern Ireland protocol, which was agreed last year. The protocol requires that EU legislation is continued in its application in Northern Ireland. Consequently, the instrument removes Northern Ireland from the scope of the 2019 regulations and changes UK-specific references to Great Britain, preventing functions being transferred from the European Commission to the Department of Health in Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, the instrument revokes the 2019 Northern Ireland regulations, which amended domestic nutrition legislation in Northern Ireland in preparation for the end of the transition period. These amendments and revocations see that EU nutrition legislation continues to apply in Northern Ireland and that our obligations under the protocol are met. The instrument also remedies deficiencies in retained EU nutrition legislation that have come into force since 2019. These concern infant formula and health claims that can be made about foods.
The devolved Administrations have been involved in this instrument’s preparation and have consented to it. Further to this, we have provisionally agreed a common framework for nutrition that will maintain existing standards and promote common approaches to nutrition policy in the future. I am grateful to the Administrations for their continued collaboration.
Scrutiny by the House of Lords Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee and committees in the Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies have now been completed, and their valuable input is currently being considered.
Furthermore, the draft instrument was the subject of a four-nation public consultation in July. Respondents represented sector stakeholders across the UK, including trade bodies, local authorities and businesses, with the majority supporting our approach. The Government’s response to the consultation was published on 24 September. Since then, my department has updated guidance for businesses regarding practical changes to nutrition legislation from 1 January 2021. That, too, was tested with stakeholders and published on GOV.UK on 17 November.
This instrument proposes no significant changes and, consequently, we estimate that there will be no significant impact on industry or the public sector. I assure noble Lords that the SI will provide continuity for business and consumers following the end of the transition period and uphold our obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Bethell for setting out these regulations very clearly and for dealing with the consultation on them. As he rightly said, the essence of these EU exit regulations relates to the Northern Ireland protocol and the withdrawal agreement. The EU nutrition legislation will continue to be applicable in Northern Ireland, while in Great Britain we will be able to set our own regulatory regime.
As my noble friend said, a consultation was carried out between 9 and 30 July 2020, inviting participation from food manufacturing and nutrition industry representative groups and the public more generally. Perhaps I may ask my noble friend, first, why the consultation period was so short. There were only 18 respondents. The responses seem quite probing and informative, but such a short period meant that inevitably those participating were relatively few in number.
I turn to some questions based on the consultation. Some 71% of respondents thought that the wording and technical details of the process needed clarification. That is a relatively high percentage, admittedly of a small number of respondents, but perhaps my noble friend can say what Her Majesty’s Government are doing in response to that. There were also requests for simplification of the process.
With regard to access to information on the process, trade bodies requested more regular updates than the current quarterly BEIS updates. What are the Government doing in response to that? Is there to be a more frequent response from BEIS to help trade bodies and those who need these updates?
In the consultation, the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol was also raised by many, expressing concern about the divergence. The consultation response —in, I have to say, a rare example of it perhaps not hitting the nail on the head—talked about how people were unable to estimate exactly how they would be impacted individually. That is scarcely surprising; it is not really evident at the moment, so I do not think that that is a sufficient answer to that concern.
On the consultation process, 82% expressed themselves satisfied, although there was some concern about the short period of the consultation, to which I have already alluded.
Perhaps I may compliment the Government on the consultation response that we see here. All too often over the years, as I am sure other noble Lords will agree, the quality of consultation responses has perhaps not always been what we would have wished for. However, in my view, this consultation response was set out in a very lucid and straightforward way. It was, in many ways, a model. In most cases, it also acknowledges shortcomings and seeks to address concerns, and that is to be welcomed. For example, on divergence, it highlights the common frameworks approach, which my noble friend also referenced, as successful. I agree entirely with this part of the consultation response, and I hope that we are able to pass that outcome and make this compulsory reading for the ministerial team dealing with UKIM. The common frameworks approach is successful and works, and it will be increasingly important, given that so much has now returned from Europe and we are dealing with—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
It is somewhat ironic that I was just stressing the importance of devolved arrangements when we were called to a vote on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. I was concluding my remarks, but I want to say that I am very pleased that the guidance has now been published—I think my noble friend said—on 17 November. I hope that has given those concerned sufficient time to become acquainted with the guidance and the impact of the regulations. I welcome that, given the impending nature of the new system that is coming into force.
I welcome the statement that officials across the four nations will continue to work closely together to prepare the United Kingdom for the end of the transition period. As I say, it is becoming very apparent that our devolved arrangements within these islands will be increasingly important in the years ahead, and that is now looming with the new period starting with 1 January 2021. I welcome that and support the regulations, subject to the remarks that I have made.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee and thank the Minister for his explanation of the regulations which are being introduced primarily to implement the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and to address the deficiencies in retained EU law. I agree with the Minister that it is important to protect public health.
I will concentrate on the areas that have an impact on the Northern Ireland protocol and the intersection with that particular common framework. I have certain questions that I would like the Minister to answer. If he cannot provide answers today, perhaps he will provide them in writing to me. I underscore the point again that public health is of vital importance. Therefore, where do the regulations intersect with the Nutrition Related Labelling, Composition and Standards common framework, which is currently subject to ongoing consultation? Was cognisance taken of this provisional framework in drawing up this statutory instrument? From what I gathered from the Minister, that was the case. I contend that there are issues and therefore a need for ongoing scrutiny and parliamentary reports where such intersections occur.
While Northern Ireland officials, Ministers, and particularly in this instance the Department of Health and Social Care and Minister Swann will no doubt participate fully in this framework, does the Minister anticipate any issues related to policy divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK at the end of the transition period? I note that the noble Lord, Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, referred to certain issues to do with divergence in relation to the protocol.
What was the nature of the consultation with the Northern Ireland Executive and particularly the Department of Health and Social Care and the Food Standards Agency regarding the content of this statutory instrument? It is interesting to note that although Annexe 2 of the Northern Ireland protocol states that EU nutrition rules will continue to apply to Northern Ireland, I could not find any reference to that in the initial documents in the provisional common framework. That may have been corrected in the further documentation on this. Why is that the case? The likelihood of divergence will increase over time and could potentially have serious implications for the future operation of the UK-wide framework as well as for public health.
I come at this from a position of not wanting a border in the Irish Sea, and I come politically from the point of view that I do not want a border on the island of Ireland between the UK and the European Union. But issues thrown up yesterday by the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium have been amplified by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in letters to the European Commission. There are currently two lists of foods: prohibited and allowed. If we want to ensure that public health is promoted in Northern Ireland, it is important that those foods on the prohibited list, such as seed potatoes and other types of seeds, can go on to that allowed list to ensure a continuation of a varied diet and varied access to foodstuffs and food supplies for all consumers in Northern Ireland. That is vital.
Two weeks ago at Oral Questions, I asked the Minister for the Cabinet Office, the noble Lord, Lord True, about this issue, and he said that it was a matter of ongoing negotiations. As we are just five weeks from the end of the transition period, I ask the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, whether there has been any progress on those negotiations or any definite outcome. It is vital to not only our retail industry, but to public health, diet and food standards in Northern Ireland.
It is important that flexibilities are introduced to ensure that certain foods are moved from the prohibited to the allowed list to ensure good public health as well as a buoyant economy, and that local consumers have access to affordable food supplies and are not forced to resort further to food banks.
I am as guilty as the next person in these debates in traversing and travelling in various directions. As well as this statutory instrument on nutritional matters, there is the other common framework about food and feed policy approaches that throws up issues about the Northern Ireland protocol. I am simply asking for equality and access to all the same foodstuffs that we currently have, so that all consumers can access a good-quality diet at an affordable cost.
My Lords, the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, will be followed by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton.
My Lords, this instrument was prepared by the Department of Health and Social Care and laid before Parliament. Its purpose is to reflect the Northern Ireland protocol by amending and revoking the nutritional regulations 2019 and to remedy deficiencies in retained European Union legislation on nutrition.
The NIP was designed as a practical solution to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, while ensuring that the UK, including Northern Ireland, could leave the EU as a whole. It necessarily included a number of special provisions which apply in Northern Ireland only for as long as the protocol is in force.
Nutrition law is a devolved competence; however, this policy area has been designated by the UK Government for consideration for a common approach. The justifications for a common approach are twofold. First, as these laws originally relate to the cohesion of the EU single market, it is appropriate that similar consideration is given to the UK’s internal market. Secondly, the statutory instrument will ensure a swift, smooth and orderly EU exit that minimises disruption for business and consumers, which is why I support it. Nutrition is an important part of our daily life. In this pandemic era, there are many families unable to have nutritious food, so the health of the family suffers, causing long-term harm, particularly to the children.
I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, that the documentation was both clear and comprehensible. I also compliment her on her command of these issues, which is of course entirely to be expected.
As the Minister set out, these are important regulations that largely make technical changes to retained EU law so that references to the UK become references to Great Britain instead. This is because the Department of Health in Northern Ireland will not have the same functions transferred to it as the rest of the UK, and the amendments will therefore ensure that EU law continues to apply in Northern Ireland and that EU retained law in England, Scotland and Wales will therefore be effective.
Needless to say, while we recognise that these regulations are necessary and reflect the Northern Ireland protocol, they contravene some of the countless commitments made by the Conservative Government on the treatment of Northern Ireland. What would be the effect of this SI if the Government had their way on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, currently being voted on in the Chamber, and threw the international agreement and protocol out of the window? What would happen to measures such as this statutory instrument?
I understand that the devolved Administrations were involved in the drafting of this instrument, as is quite correct. Can the Minister confirm whether the UK is centred on maintaining existing standards and promoting common approaches to nutritional policy going forward? I agree with the important questions posed by all noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Bourne. What assessment have the Government made of other potential future divergences which might arise from, for example, UK food labelling? What safeguards are in place to prevent regulatory divergence? We know that labelling specifically is a critical concern for food and drink manufacturers in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As has been outlined, we will have different trading rules in Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1 January. There is a great risk that labelling use in Britain will no longer be legally recognised in Northern Ireland or on the continent. I hope that the Minister can assure the Committee that that will not be the case. This is because it is quite possible that there may be food labelling regulatory divergence between the EU and Northern Ireland and Great Britain after the end of transition. Much will depend on trade deal negotiations, which may very well require regulatory alignment, including requirements for food manufacturers exporting across the channel to update their food labels for products placed on the UK or EU market.
This is not a long lead-in time. Does the Minister recognise the impact that delays in negotiations have had on operators? Is he confident that operators will have enough time to apply these changes, especially given the additional workplace challenges many have faced due to Covid?
It is also conceivable that there would be the political will to change current EU laws where there are particular public health concerns in the UK, including measures around, for example, addressing the obesity crisis by requiring calorie contents in alcoholic drinks. Given the link between Covid-19 risk factors and obesity, for example—and that is a good example—will the Minister confirm whether the Government have any such plans to deal with that kind of eventuality?
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their extremely valuable contributions to this important debate. This statutory instrument is incredibly important. However, I reassure noble Lords that it does no more than is absolutely necessary to reflect the Northern Ireland protocol in law, ensuring that our obligations under the withdrawal agreement are met and to remedy some deficiencies in retained EU nutrition legislation, and that its passage is critical to ensuring a functioning regulatory system across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
My noble friend Lord Bourne asked why the consultation occurred over such a short period and why it had seemingly so few responses. The engagement was as expected. It reflected probably the contentiousness of the proposals or otherwise, and it very much followed Cabinet Office consultation and guidelines. As such, it completely met the expectations of those who managed the consultation process. It was none the less an incredibly valuable process and we are extremely grateful to all those who participated in it.
I pay my respects to the expertise of the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, in this matter and thank her very much for her kind comments about the arrangements and the process. In essence, her questions were largely about what provisions we were making for policy divergence. I reassure her that no divergence is anticipated. We are not putting in place mechanisms for divergence, because we are not planning to create it. We are simply reading across the current legislation and putting in place through this SI mechanisms to ensure that it can stay in place.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked about prohibited foods versus allowed foods. The list of prohibited foods to which she refers is out of scope of this instrument. However, the UK is proud of its world-leading food, health and animal welfare standards, not least those which relate to nutrition. We will neither lower our standards nor put the UK’s biosecurity at risk as we negotiate new trade deals. I can assure the noble Baroness that the Government remain committed to promoting robust food standards nationally and internationally and to protecting consumer interests to ensure that consumers can have confidence in the food that they buy.
The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, also asked about maintaining standards. I reassure her too that we do not currently envisage divergence. Were divergence ever to hove on to the agenda, we would of course consult on any new regulations, and that would be the time to take on board comments from industry. If a common approach cannot be agreed or would not be appropriate for one or more nations, and divergence between the UK nations occurred, the UKIM Bill provides for goods made and labelled in any of the UK nations to be recognised and sold in any of the others, subject to the NIP, without discrimination.
I hope very much that I have been able to answer the questions raised by noble Lords, and with that in mind I commend these regulations to the Committee.
The Grand Committee stands adjourned until 3.45 pm. I remind Members to sanitise their desks and chairs before leaving the Room.