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Plant Protection Products (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2023

Volume 834: debated on Monday 4 December 2023

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 23 October be approved.

Relevant document: 1st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, I declare my farming and land management interests as set out in the register.

Ensuring that our farmers and growers have the right tools to grow crops and raise livestock is essential for food security and the rural economy. This instrument makes amendments to legislation for plant protection products—or pesticides, as they are sometimes known—to extend and reinstate transitional arrangements put in place after EU exit. These measures allow, first, the import of seeds treated with pesticides, authorised in the EU but not here in Great Britain, and secondly, the import of certain pesticides from the EU that are identical to those authorised in Great Britain.

I first turn to treated seeds. Seed treatments protect seeds and young seedlings from a range of threats, and for many farmers are crucial to ensure good crop establishment. The arrangements for treated seed imports will end in December, meaning that if nothing changes, this import route will no longer be available next year or beyond. Right now, many important seed treatments come to Great Britain through this route. For example, 99% of British maize seeds are protected with at least one pesticide available through these arrangements. That is £550 million-worth of crop which, as the main feed crop for cattle and a key biogas fuel, can have important downstream impacts on food and energy costs if there are changes in quality and yield.

Although emergency authorisations have recently been granted for several of these products—recognising the threat to the crop and the lack of other means of control—this is a short-term solution that cannot provide farmers with certainty in coming years. This instrument will extend current arrangements for three and a half years, providing certainty for farmers, alongside time to develop more enduring solutions.

With any change to pesticide legislation, it is crucial to ensure that our high standards for public health and environmental protection are maintained. Only seed treatments authorised by at least one EU member state can be imported and used through these arrangements. This means they will have passed through a strict regulatory regime with similar high standards to Great Britain.

I turn to parallel imports. After EU exit, transitional arrangements meant that pesticides that were identical to products authorised in Great Britain could keep being imported for several years. These products tended to be cheaper than those on the British market, allowing farmers to reduce costs. Parallel imports ended in December last year, and farmers have until June 2024 to use the products currently in store. Noble Lords will be aware of the financial burdens farmers and growers currently face. Global events have significantly increased input costs, meaning that access to cost-effective pesticides is more important than ever for farmers already operating close to the margin.

This instrument will allow previous permit holders to re-apply for a parallel trade permit, lasting up to two years. Grace periods may be granted when that permit expires, allowing stocks to be sold for another six months, and stored and used for up to a year after that. This timing has been carefully considered. It will reduce financial burdens on farmers now, while ensuring sufficient regulatory oversight. To ensure compliance with our high standards, parallel products must be identical to their GB-authorised reference products. Through sampling and intelligence-led investigations, our regulator can identify products that are not up to these standards and will remove the permit if this is the case.

Across both parallel trade and treated seed imports, we are making the changes using powers in the retained EU law Act. Implementing these measures underscores our commitment to supporting hard-working farmers and delivering food security.

The measures are temporary, extending or reinstating post-EU exit transitional arrangements. They therefore do not constitute a significant change in policy. Rather, they provide farmers and manufacturers more time to adjust to the changes brought about by EU exit. For manufacturers, that is time to submit full applications for these important products and their alternatives. For farmers, it is time to adapt and integrate new products and methods into their practice. This will include the use of integrated pest management techniques, which we are already supporting through the sustainable farming incentive. The length of the extension has been designed to encourage this adjustment, so that manufacturers and farmers take the crucial steps needed to ensure that a permanent solution is reached, with our support.

I conclude by emphasising the importance of these measures. They will ensure that farmers and growers have the tools to grow healthy crops, feed the nation and produce our energy. The timely implementation of these measures is crucial so that they are in place before current arrangements end. I hope noble Lords will support these measures and their objectives, and I commend these draft regulations to the House.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend and thank him for presenting these very welcome measures. As I understand them, they are completing some unfinished business since the UK left the European Union. I have some brief questions for him—one of which I think he may not be able to reply to this evening, so I encourage him to write if possible. The first question relates to the time. I think my noble friend said that these measures would exist for three and a half years. He will be aware that the NFU had hoped that seed permits, in particular, could be reinstated for five years, or be valid for the duration of authorisation of the reference product. Just to help my greater understanding, can my noble friend explain why three and a half years was chosen, as opposed to five years, which would have given greater certainty to those who are using the products in question?

Also, the NFU has asked whether it is possible for Defra to put a commitment in place for longer-term measures. I wonder whether, particularly in relation to both seed treatment technology and a future GB parallel trade scheme, the Government might consider longer-term measures. I will revert to that in a moment.

My noble friend may be aware that FERA, the Food and Environment Research Agency, is based in Sand Hutton, in the constituency I had the honour to represent for five years, very close to York. I applaud the work that it does. It has asked to clarify this if possible. It appears that we are working off the old data requirements under previous regulations, specifically in looking at these products—data requirements for active substances under regulation EC 283/2013 and formulated products under a similar regulation, EC 284/2013. These have been updated, probably since we left the EU, for microbial biopesticides. Is it the case, in my noble friend’s experience, that we are working on out-of-date data? That could potentially be seen as an additional barrier to entry for companies seeking to use EU data. Is this something that the Government might keep under review?

Similarly, alarm bells were set ringing, certainly in the UK, when a decision was taken that I think potentially killed off a pesticide reduction regulation in the EU. The European Parliament was responsible for that on 21 or 22 November. This seems to give an advantage to countries such as Brazil, which is looking to produce some of these biopesticides, which would not normally have been something that the UK would look favourably on introducing into this country. Can my noble friend explain what the procedure is within Defra for the control of pesticides now?

I conclude by referring to the conclusion of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, in its first report of this Session in November this year. In paragraph 56, Defra is quoted in its reply as saying that

“the Government is committed to Integrated Pest Management … We expect to set out more detail on this in the National Action Plan on Pesticides, which will be published shortly”.

I know that that is always a very popular phrase in government and parliamentary circles. I just invite my noble friend, if it is at all possible this evening, to put a timeframe on “shortly”. Before Christmas? Before the end of January? Before the spring—which is another loose parliamentary term? That would go some way to reassuring those involved in seed management and pesticide control as to the Government’s thinking. With those few remarks, I welcome the regulations before us this evening.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations. They seem to me to be another last-minute sticking plaster to protect farmers and our food security from the damage done by the UK’s botched exit from the European Union.

As we have heard, the instrument allows seeds treated with plant protection products, which have been authorised in at least one EEA member state before 31 December 2020, to continue to be used in the UK for an additional three and a half years to 1 July 2027; otherwise, the authorisation will end at the end of this month. Can the Minister tell us why these products have not been authorised for use in the UK in the three years since the end of the Brexit implementation period? Why has it taken so long for nothing to be done?

The regulations also allow those who hold a valid parallel trade permit to apply for it to be continued for another two years. As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, the NFU tells us in its briefing that it needs five years rather than two to source equivalent products and that, without that, UK farmers will be at a disadvantage compared to EU farmers and will incur extra cost. Can the Minister say why the Government are allowing only two years? Defra says that the provisions will allow manufacturers sufficient time to apply for parallel product authorisation and PPP users to source alternative pest management solutions. I am still wondering what the hold-up is.

I always look forward to the arrival in my inbox of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s regular excellent reports. Its latest report shows that it shares my concerns that even further extensions may be needed on top of the ones we are discussing today if the sector does not get on with applying for authorisations or if the process of authorisation continues to be as tardy as it has been for the past three years. Have the manufacturers not bothered to make applications since 2020 or has the system failed to process them? Which is it?

In reply to the committee, Defra denied that there was a problem with the Health and Safety Executive’s capacity to process the documentation. However, it commented that

“the preparation, submission and assessment of new GB applications is a multi-year process”.

It went on:

“One application has already reached the assessment stage”.

One? After three years? These are important products to farmers. Defra has offered to consider streamlining the guidance to encourage industry applications. Perhaps there we have the answer to the mystery of why it has taken so long. Is this unclear guidance or gold-plating? Or has the whole thing fallen foul of the massive amount of work that the Civil Service and other organisations have had to do as a result of Brexit?

Defra’s reply to the committee emphasised the Government’s commitment to integrated pest management, which the Minister has repeated today. I applaud that approach, as do farmers who do not want to waste money on excessive spraying. However, I point out that the national action plan on pesticides, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, was expected in spring 2022. How do I know this? It is on the Defra website; the consultation ended in February 2021. So, finally, can the Minister say when farmers and horticulturalists can expect this delayed national plan, because it will affect their ability to plan their cropping and land use, and the profitability of their businesses? I hope that the Minister can answer my questions.

My Lords, clearly we are all aware that farmers and growers have had to deal with some pretty formidable challenges over recent years, including the rising costs of fertiliser, feed and energy. It is really important that we do everything we can to support farmers going forward.

I absolutely understand the concerns that have been raised about any prospect of further crop loss due to disease or insect infestation, as well as the anxiety around the kinds of tools that farmers can use to protect their crops and to prevent any problems and the financial consequences that come from them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, just mentioned the national pesticide action plan, as did the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. I note that, when this was debated in the Commons at the end of last month—only last week, in fact—the Minister said that it would come “soon”. We have been hearing that for quite some time. If the Minister is unable to give any more detail on that today, it would be good if he could press his department to come up with a more concrete date so that we all know when we are likely to see the plan.

I have a few questions about certain things. First, I am sure that noble Lords who have heard me speak before know that I am particularly interested in consultation. The Explanatory Memorandum says that feedback from informal stakeholder engagement was strongly supportive of the proposed extension. I would like to understand better what is meant by informal stakeholder consultation. Who did the Government consult? How is that managed? I ask out of interest.

I want to make the point that we support the extension. However, it is not clear how the time limit of three and a half years was arrived at for the provisions. Other noble Baronesses have mentioned the fact that the NFU is concerned about that date. Again, more understanding of how the date was arrived at and whether it had anything to do with the informal consultation that took place would be helpful.

Although we support the extension, we believe that it needs to be temporary. During this time, growers, farmers and researchers need to be effectively and productively looking for alternative crop protection solutions. We urge Defra, the Minister and his department to look at how they can encourage the development of alternatives and outline any measures that the Government are taking to facilitate and accelerate the development of alternative systems for crop protection.

I do not know whether the Minister has seen the very good report that was published in January this year and produced by the Pesticide Collaboration, Designing Pesticide Reduction Targets for the UK. It looks at what is happening in other European countries, such as Denmark and Germany, that have set pesticide reduction targets. One thing that the report does, which I draw to the Minister’s attention, is to highlight the inadequacies of existing pesticide usage data as a major barrier to both setting and measuring progress towards the UK’s pesticide reduction targets. What are the Government doing around this? When we get the national action plan, will it have those reduction targets in place? Will it have a plan for how to get there and how we will invest in new methodologies?

I have a couple of final questions. Looking at how we will move forward, where, if at all, does the gene editing Act fit in with this? In particular, how will that Act fit in with the pesticide national action plan when we see it? While we were debating that Act in this House, all the briefings and a lot of the information that came from the Government and noble Lords at the Dispatch Box related to how researchers and industries were expected to move quickly, for example to reduce reliance purely on chemicals. Answers to those questions would be very helpful.

Finally, I ask about the level of information that the new system will require for any future authorisations to be given. The reason for asking this is because, previously, the Government have admitted that they intend to ask for less safety information for registration of chemicals in the UK. My question is really to find out if this will extend to seed treatments. If so, we could see things authorised in the UK that would not be used in other jurisdictions. Some clarification would be most helpful.

I thank all noble Lords for their valuable contributions to this short but important debate.

On the issue of consultation, I believe that stakeholder engagement was conducted with Minister Spencer, listening to farmers, manufacturers and industry bodies. Noble Lords asked why we are looking at these issues now and why this was not introduced sooner. After EU exit, we put arrangements in place until the end of 2023 to continue the import and use of seeds treated in the EU; this gave the GB industry three years to adjust. The Health and Safety Executive has been working with manufacturers and seed users over the past three years to prepare them for these changes, demonstrating the Government’s continued commitment to the area. This extension recognises that the process of making an authorisation is multi-year, and longer for any new products. We will support manufacturers to deliver on these requirements.

The arrangements put in place at the point of EU exit aimed to smooth the transition to a GB regime without parallel trade. However, global events have led to price increases across a range of important sectors. This means that the need to access cost-effective plant protection products has become more acute. We recognise this pressure and are taking action to address these issues. The measures are indeed temporary, but we have now set our sights firmly on delivering more enduring solutions. We are committed to working with stakeholders in both farming and industry to ensure that these solutions work on the ground. We are already delivering solutions to increase farmers’ toolboxes to counter pests, weeds and diseases with the introduction of new paid integrated pest management actions within the SFI scheme. We are also supporting research into integrated pest management, including £270 million through the farming innovation programme. This will help farmers to access the most effective pest management tools available and ensure that we understand changing trends in pest threats across the UK.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked whether two years is too short to be of any use. We believe that the reinstatement of this time length will allow parallel imports to continue, and grace periods may be granted to allow stocks to be used for a further one and a half years after that. This means that pesticide users may have access to these products for three and a half years in total. For many in the sector, the extension will be sufficient, and parallel trade trends tend to be short term and dynamic, as traders respond to different price differentials in the market. The length of extension has been carefully balanced to support farmers now and to maintain regulatory oversight, as a shorter extension minimises the risk of counterfeit and non-compliant products entering our market. However, in the long term we will work with industry to increase the supply of alternative products, and bolster the choice and competitiveness of the market for all pesticide users.

For seed treatment, we are extending by 3.5 years. Again, this is a multi-year process, and this extension allows manufacturers to gather the appropriate data and submit applications for both new and existing products before these measures end, therefore supporting farmers’ access to the tools that they need. The length of the extension was considered carefully to allow farmers time to adjust and to increase their use of integrated pest management alongside current products. This will support flexibility and resilience in the face of the pressures they are having to deal with.

We appreciate that the national action plan for the sustainable use of pesticides has been delayed. We will publish it shortly. We have not waited for the publication of the NAP to move forward with work supporting sustainable pest management. Farmers can now sign up for new paid IPM actions within the SFI, so there are things happening, and people are being paid to make things happen. It is not as if nothing is happening. I have already mentioned the £270 million that we are putting into farming innovation, and we will continue to work with and help farmers to find the most effective pest management tools.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked why there have not been authorisations for seed treatments since EU exit, and asked whether this was a question of HSE capacity or concerns about cost. We have had no indication from the Health and Safety Executive that a shortage of capacity has led to a lack of product authorisations for treated seeds. However, the preparation, submission and assessment of new applications is a multiyear process. One application for maize has already reached the assessment stage and is currently being considered. We will continue to work closely with the HSE.

As to why it takes so long, is it because the UK is insisting on new field trials and new trials and tests, rather than accepting the ones that were deemed adequate when the products were first authorised?

That is a very fair question, and in order to answer the noble Baroness correctly, I think it is better if I go back to the department and write to her and all noble Lords with the reasoning behind this.

I have not been able to say exactly when the NAP is going to be published, but it will set out our ambitions across pesticides policy and regulation, with a key aim to minimise the risks and impacts of pesticides on human health and the environment, while ensuring that farmers, growers and other land managers have the tools they need to grow our food safely. The work is wide-ranging and complex, which is reflected in the number of responses received. I know the noble Baroness is very keen on consultation. We have had more than 38,500 responses, so it is important that all of that is calculated into the plan. It is a UK-wide document. Harking back to the previous debate this evening, I am pleased to say we have worked closely and fruitfully with colleagues in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to ensure that the plan works across all our home nations.

Sustainable farming practices are very important to the Government, and we remain committed to the targets agreed in the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework and the global framework for chemicals. UK diplomatic leadership was critical to agreeing the frameworks, and we will continue to champion their implementation.

My noble friend Lady McIntosh mentioned biopesticides and asked what we will do to increase their availability. It is quite a technical area that I am not fully up to speed on, so, if it is okay with my noble friend, I will commit to write to her and all noble Lords on biopesticides specifically.

I will go back over Hansard, and I will write to noble Lords on any questions that I have not covered this evening. We realise that this is an important instrument to facilitate the work that our farmers do to bring food to our tables and, increasingly, energy to our homes. It is important in our role as the Government to make sure that they have the support to do that. This statutory instrument will extend or reinstate EU schemes to ensure that farmers have the tools they need going forward and that the industry has time to adjust. I commend these draft regulations to the House.

Motion agreed.