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Exiting the European Union (Agriculture)

Volume 683: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2020

I beg to move,

That the draft Food and Feed Hygiene and Safety (Miscellaneous Amendments etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, which were laid before this House on 14 October, be approved.

This instrument concerns food and feed laws and is made under the powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to make necessary amendments to UK regulations. It follows from the 17 EU exit instruments in the field of food and food safety made in 2019, which, for brevity, I will refer to collectively as the 2019 regulations. The Government’s priority and commitment is to ensure that the high standard of food and feed safety and consumer protection we enjoy in this country continues to be maintained now that the UK has left the European Union and going forward beyond the end of the transition period.

I must briefly draw the House’s attention to two technical corrections to the original statutory instrument, which were noticed after the SI was laid and have been rectified by means of a correction slip. The corrections, for the benefit of the House, are as follows. First, on page 1, regulation 1(2) previously read:

“Part 2 and Part 4 come into force on”.

It is corrected to clarify that

“This Part, Part 2 and Part 4 come into force on”.

Secondly, in page 12, regulation 10(13), in the inserted regulation 20A(b)(i), “may made regulations” has, for the benefit of good grammar, been corrected to read, “may make regulations”. I confirm that officials in the devolved Administrations have been kept informed of these minor typographical changes.

As the instrument is technical in nature, I am sure that hon. Members will welcome a very brief summary of the regulations and the changes that we are making. The 2019 regulations were made in preparation for our exit from the European Union and will come into force at the end of the transition period. They will ensure that the regulatory framework for food and feed remains functional throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland following the end of the transition period. They achieve that by making technical amendments to EU food and feed legislation, such as changing EU-specific references that will be redundant on exit day, and transferring functions and powers currently held by the European Commission to the appropriate authorities in each of the UK’s constituent nations, reflecting the context in which they were made—preparing for all possible scenarios in leaving the EU. However, the withdrawal agreement was of course secured and, with it, the Northern Ireland protocol.

On 20 May 2020, we set out our approach to implementing the Northern Ireland protocol as part of meeting our obligations under the withdrawal agreement with the EU. The primary purpose of this instrument is to provide necessary amendments to implement the Northern Ireland protocol in the field of food and food safety, by amending or revoking the 2019 regulations to apply to Great Britain only. The instrument gives effect to the protocol by ensuring retained EU law on food and feed applies only to Great Britain. It does so by removing references to Northern Ireland authorities and revoking corrections previously made to Northern Ireland domestic legislation in the 2019 regulations. EU food and feed legislation will continue to apply in Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland protocol.

For example, the functions currently undertaken by the European Commission to review and make changes to legislation were assigned by the 2019 regulations to the appropriate authority, that being the relevant Secretary of State in England or the relevant Ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. To implement the Northern Ireland protocol, it is now necessary to amend the definition of appropriate authority in retained EU law to remove references to Northern Ireland.

The secondary purpose of the instrument is to remedy deficiencies and inoperabilities in retained EU food and feed legislation, in particular arising from that which has come into force since the 2019 regulations were made, but which we are obliged to treat as retained law. The amendments are technical in nature—for example, removing references to the EU and its institutions, which will no longer be appropriate following the end of the transition period.

The amendments include, for example, specific food hygiene regulations consolidating provisions allowing for the words “United Kingdom” or the abbreviations UK or GB to be used in identification marks. Similar amendments to general food law will allow a period of 21 months after the end of the transition period for products of animal origin carrying a UK/EC identification mark to be placed on the English market. That measure should reduce the impact of the change in requirements for identification marks. Similar provision is expected to be introduced in Wales and Scotland.

Let me be clear that the instrument does not introduce any changes that will impact on the day-to-day operation of food businesses, nor does it introduce any new regulatory burden. The essence of the legislation is unchanged. The instrument will ensure continuity for businesses and protection of consumers’ interests by ensuring that the statute remains operable and enforceable. It provides confidence in the ability to trade both domestically and internationally.

The amendments take account of the Government’s commitments under the Northern Ireland protocol and make changes that allow Northern Ireland goods to be manufactured to the EU standard while retaining protections for all UK consumers.

A public consultation on the statutory instrument was held in August. We remain grateful to the stakeholders who responded, with the majority supportive of the approach to give effect to the protocol in the legislation and of the amendments to retained EU legislation. It is important to note that the devolved Administrations have provided their consent for the instrument and we have engaged with them positively throughout. I put on record my gratitude.

I take this opportunity to reassure the House that the overarching aim of the statutory instrument is to provide continuity for business to ensure that, following the end of the transition period, high standards of safety and quality for food and feed regulation will continue across the UK, and to reflect our obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol. Having effective and functional law in this area is key to ensuring that the standards of food safety and consumer protection that we enjoy in this country are maintained in the immediate and long term. I ask hon. Members to support the amendments proposed in the instrument to ensure the continuation of effective food and feed safety and public health controls. I commend the regulations to the House.

I thank the Minister for his brief but informative introduction —I would like to say it was entertaining, but that might be pushing the boat out a bit, because it is a very technical piece of legislation, as he outlined. The instrument is primarily being made to reflect the Northern Ireland protocol in the field of food safety and hygiene.

As we know, the instrument amends or revokes 16 of the 17 EU exit statutory instruments that were hurried through in the weeks ahead of the original 29 March 2019 Brexit deadline. As the Minister said, the intention is to avoid disruption to food controls, which is critical for the approximately 220,000 businesses active in the agrifood sector. As such, we will not be opposing the regulations today. We have a number of questions, however, because we have been clear that any future changes to regulatory controls after the UK leaves the EU should provide at least the same, or even an improved, level of consumer protection. That applies to food hygiene and safety standards as much as anything else.

As the Minister briefly outlined, there was a public consultation. The explanatory memorandum sets out that that was completed by the Food Standards Agency in respect of the amendments made to this instrument, which is welcome. I note, however, that the initial consultation, which was carried out in September and October 2018, received 50 responses from interested parties across a wide range of sectors. The consultation that we are talking about today, which was carried out in August and September of this year, received only seven responses. That is a concerning drop-off, even though many other issues have clearly been occupying people’s attention this year. Will he confirm that the recent consultation was as widely publicised and drawn to the attention of stakeholders as the previous one? Does he have a view on why there was such a drop-off in responses?

Although we can view the consultation document itself, a summary of the responses has not yet been published, so is not available for proper scrutiny. That is especially concerning as the explanatory memorandum states that 29% of replies had “mixed comments” and that further analysis of them will be undertaken. The phrase “mixed comments” could, of course, be classic civil service speak for major concerns being flagged, or equally, those concerns could have been addressed in the regulations. We do not know because we have not seen them. Although 29% amounts to only two responses in this consultation, that does not make them any less valid, given the small number of responses that we had.

The Minister knows that I am keen on transparency and full disclosure, so I hope that he will be able to shed some light on the nature of those mixed comments, the concerns that were raised, and what further analysis of the instrument was undertaken following that response. Given the low level of response, I wonder whether he can be confident that the consultation process was sufficiently robust.

Will the Minister update us on the progress of the provisional framework on food and feed safety and hygiene that will create a joint risk analysis process across the UK from the end of the transition period? I note that the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency gave a written response to some questions raised by the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee last week, which indicated that the provisional framework will continue to be reviewed into early December.

As that is a matter of public safety, it is imperative that any changes are communicated clearly and in a timely manner to ensure that the industry can remain in line with current legislation. Can the Minister assure us that it will be possible to do that within those timescales? What assessment has been undertaken of the readiness and capability of the FSA and Food Standards Scotland to take on those responsibilities from day one?

Finally, the explanatory memorandum states that guidance is not required for this instrument as it generally maintains existing regulations and does not introduce new requirements. Given that this regulation was spread across 17 instruments previously, it presumably covered 17 different sets of guidelines. That concern was raised by the Local Government Association in the initial consultation, which suggested that the FSA or other organisations, such as relevant professional bodies, may wish to consider how clear guidance and assurance for councils on the new regulations could be provided.

The Proprietary Association of Great Britain has also expressed concerns about the FSA’s assertion that there would only be minimal, one-off familiarisation costs to local authorities and port health authorities, stating that cuts to local authority funding are such that some authorities do not have any full-time food and feed officers and that the time required for officers to read and understand the proposed regulations will impact on the already limited time that trading standards, environmental health and port health authority officers have to undertake enforcement activity. We know local authorities are already under intense pressure due to the covid-19 response, so will the Minister confirm whether he has spoken with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about whether councils do have sufficient capacity to carry out their duties in this important area? On that note, I will end my speech.

I thank the Minister for his explanation of where we are. Food and feed safety is vital to Northern Ireland’s important agri-sector, and for my constituency in particular the transition in leaving the EU has to enable Northern Ireland to continue to trade without obstruction. He has confirmed that the full consultation has taken place with the Northern Ireland Executive, and I thank him for that confirmation that ministerial contact in Northern Ireland and here at Westminster has been constructive.

I have one question that I wish to ask the Minister. It relates to a technical point, but I just want this on the record, if he does not mind. I understand the technical aspect of this measure and the need to react and secure, but I must express concern that it highlights Northern Ireland as being outside the UK by using the prefix “United Kingdom (Northern Ireland)”. I need to stress that Northern Ireland lies firmly within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that cannot be forgotten. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that.

I am grateful to hon. Members for a typically informed and focused debate. It is a pleasure, as always, to appear opposite the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), a different shadow Minister from my normal double act in recent weeks. He raised a number of technical points about the consultation and other aspects. I will endeavour to answer them briefly, but where I do not do so I will, of course, write to him.

I am confident that the consultation undertaken in August and September was sufficient. The hon. Gentleman highlights the smaller number of responses it received. I suggest that is due to the significant consultation undertaken two years before and the fact that in this context little in our approach has changed. Many will therefore have felt that they had had their say back then, and that was reflected in the approach taken. He mentioned local councils’ capacity to deal with these regulations. Like many Members of this House, I was a councillor in a past life and I pay tribute to the work that our councils and local authorities do up and down this country. I am confident that they will be able to implement these regulations effectively. On the FSA and FSS, I am also confident that they are ready and prepared for what is coming in these regulations, which are relatively minor and technical in what they are seeking to update. I will of course go through the transcript in Hansard and write to him on anything I have missed out.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), I can reassure him that, while the wording of this statutory instrument reflects the technical legal wording to reflect the Northern Ireland protocol and the withdrawal agreement and the measures in that to help protect and secure the safety of the peace process, I am happy to be very clear with him on the record in this Chamber that, of course, Northern Ireland remains a hugely important and integral part of our United Kingdom and one that I hope to be able to visit when travel is a bit more normal. I may even visit his constituency of Strangford.

I would welcome the Minister to my constituency. One of his former members of staff came from my constituency as well. It will be a double opportunity for him to visit the town of Comber and also my constituency. I would welcome seeing him there.

I will take that as a clear invitation. Sam Beggs, who was a fantastic member of staff to both the hon. Gentleman and me, always sang the praises of Strangford. I need no more than the hon. Gentleman’s kind invitation to take him up on it when travel is more normal.

Question put and agreed to.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I will suspend the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.