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House of Lords Hansard
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Food and Feed Imports (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019
14 March 2019
Volume 796

Motion to Approve

Moved by

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That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 5 February be approved.

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My Lords, I shall speak to the two remaining Motions standing in my name on the Order Paper. The Government’s priority is to ensure that the high standard of food safety and consumer protection we enjoy in this country is maintained when the UK leaves the European Union. I shall first address the instrument regarding imports of food and feed of non-animal origin, where the Food Standards Agency has lead responsibility. Legislation covering imports of products of animal origin is being taken forward by Defra in a separate statutory instrument. The FSA and Defra have worked collaboratively on areas of shared interest.

The UK imports food and feed from across the world, not just from the EU. Although much of it poses little risk to health, food and feed of non-animal origin is subject to an increased level of control where it is deemed likely to constitute a serious risk to human or animal health or where there are known or emerging risks associated with it. This specified higher risk food and feed is subject to official controls at authorised entry points. These controls ensure that the food and feed is safe for consumption. The Government remain committed to ensuring that it remains so after we leave the European Union. The import controls currently in place will continue once the UK leaves the EU. They will remain unchanged until the Government decide, based on evidence and surveillance, that there has been a change in risk. The instrument will ensure that legislation relating to imports of food and feed products that is in place to control contaminants such as Salmonella, aflatoxins and pesticide residues continues to function effectively after the UK leaves the EU. It also ensures that there is minimum disruption at UK seaports and airports if we do not reach a deal with the EU.

Systems are in place to monitor food and feed imports arriving in the UK. The EU rapid alert system for food and feed, which we discussed when considering the earlier Motions and to which the UK is a major contributor, facilitates vital food safety data sharing. Continued access to the RASFF system is a key priority and the FSA continues to press for full access to this system in negotiations with the EU. To mitigate risks in this area, the FSA is building on proven mechanisms to enhance its capability and its capacity to respond effectively to any food-borne contamination incidents or outbreaks. This includes engaging with other international food authorities, including the International Network of Food Safety Authorities—INFOSAN—which is managed jointly by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

Ensuring the safety of imported food remains a priority for the Government. If the statutory instrument is approved, the controls currently in place will continue once the UK leaves the EU. These will remain unchanged until the Government, based on evidence and surveillance, decide that there has been a change in risk. I make it clear that no policy changes are made by this instrument beyond the minimal changes necessary to rectify deficiencies in the retained EU legislation.

Secondly, I shall address the instrument amending legislation on official controls. Official controls are performed by competent authorities such as the Food Standards Agency to verify the compliance of business with food and feed law. Legislation in this area sets out operational standards for the performance of official controls by competent authorities—for example, audit and training requirements.

The legislation addresses a broad variety of areas required to underpin our world-class system for consumer protection and biosecurity, ranging from import controls to the capacity of laboratories analysing food samples. This instrument will ensure that the competent authorities of the United Kingdom retain sufficient powers to act to counter emerging threats to public health, animal health or animal welfare. Both instruments propose a transfer of responsibilities to UK entities to support a UK-specific regulatory regime. Responsibilities incumbent on the European Commission are designated to Ministers in England, Wales, Scotland and the devolved authority in Northern Ireland. It is also important to note that the devolved Administrations have provided their consent for these instruments and have been involved throughout with their development. If the UK reaches a deal with the EU, Ministers will invite Parliament to revoke or amend these instruments to reflect that deal.

In conclusion, the instruments constitute necessary measures to ensure that the high standard of food and feed safety that we enjoy in this country is maintained after exit day. I hope that, with the reassurances I have given, noble Lords can support these regulations. I beg to move.

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My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction. The general comments that I made about the first pair of SIs will apply to this second group, which concerns the relationship of the FSA and the FSS with the EFSA after Brexit. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on his point about the very short time that it is estimated businesses will require to familiarise themselves with and disseminate these regulations. I raised exactly the same point last week in the Moses Room on another group of SIs. I remain suspicious that this staggeringly small estimate was made to avoid the need for an impact assessment.

I accept the Minister’s statement that these SIs involve no policy change, but they alter who has the power to change them in the future and who will carry them out. For example, the food and feed imports regulations give quite a bit of power directly to the Secretary of State—in this case, Mr Gove, I think—amounting to the sort of power grab we have become used to in recent government proposals. Despite assurances from government that animal welfare and public health concerning food and feed controls will not be at the mercy of upcoming trade deals, it is possible to argue that the powers conferred on the Secretary of State could allow for that. Can the Minister assure us that this will not happen? If it does happen at a later stage, she should be assured that I will come back to haunt her.

If the EFSA and FSA/FSS do not align, regulatory divergence will create difficulties for our importers and exporters, but nothing has yet been clarified. We might start with aligned regulations but the Government have always claimed that leaving the EU will allow us to be free as air to improve our regulations in the future. However, does the Minister accept that, if we do so, we will no longer be aligned, and that could cause problems for our food exporters, who may already be being hit by increased tariffs, and limit what importers can bring in? I would be very interested in her comments on that.

I turn to the second SI—the official controls for feed, food and animal health and welfare regulations—which refers to the movement of animals and goods between countries in the single market and to what can enter the market. Again, I accept that this package of regulations does not amend general hygiene laws; it just amends the methods used to verify compliance with them. However, in that respect, is the Minister confident that we have enough staff in the right places to verify compliance, and how will it be done if the Irish border remains open, as we all hope it will?

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My Lords, I too am grateful to the Minister for introducing the debate on these two statutory instruments. Some of the points made in the first debate will be made in this one as well because there are obviously similarities, so I do not apologise for that.

I shall start with the devolved Administrations. How far have we got with them? Consultation with them on this issue is more crucial than on radioactivity because there is so much agriculture in Northern Ireland—it is the main industry there. Clearly, the movement of food and animals from north to south in Ireland will have to, or should be able to, continue. The question is whether the devolved Administrations, particularly in this case the appropriate departments in Northern Ireland, will be ready on day one, if day one is in just a few days’ time. It is a very important issue and we need an assurance that they will be ready in time.

As already made clear by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, there will have to be adequate transition periods. Are we sure we have a long enough transition period to allow everything to be put in place that needs to be put in place? There is also a question of costs. Some estimates have been made about the costs that businesses will incur due to these measures. Can the Minister say something about the costs and whether the businesses concerned are fully aware of what this may mean for them?

As raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, which bodies will take over the responsibilities currently exercised by the relevant EU bodies? I think we are talking about the Food Standards Agency and other bodies in Scotland and so on. Do they have adequate time and resources to spring into action at the beginning? Further, what arrangements will be made for collecting data about the effectiveness of the regulations and the reporting methods? What bodies will be able to scrutinise performance and delivery, and what assessment has been made of their capacity to take on this work?

Finally, if we have not done so already, we will shortly be entering into trade negotiations with other countries outside the EU. Some of these countries are pretty tough negotiators. Can we have an assurance from the Minister that no changes will be made to our policies as in these two statutory instruments if the Americans, in particular, play tough with us in trade negotiations? I shall not go on about chlorinated chicken but it is very clear that the Americans already have an agenda for their negotiations with us and part of it will impinge on the safeguards inherent in these statutory instruments. That would put the Government in quite a difficult position. Of course, it is not the Government’s intention to change anything but, when negotiations take place and they become pretty tough, I wonder whether the Government will be equally tough and say to the Americans, “We’re not changing this at all, no matter what the negotiating pressure on us”. Therefore, as a real safeguard, we want to be assured that the present standards of safety and food quality will continue beyond our leaving the EU.

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My Lords, I start by thanking both noble Lords for their valuable contributions and saying clearly that the Government have no intention of lowering food standards in the UK, irrespective of any trade agreements there may or may not be around the world. The two issues are not interlinked; each trade negotiation will be considered on its individual merits.

As I said in my opening remarks, these instruments will ensure that the regulatory controls for food and feed continue to function effectively after exit day, and that public health is protected; that is their purpose. They will correct deficiencies in the retained EU regulations as well as references and terminology relating to European institutions such as the Commission, the European Food Safety Authority and member states. EU legislation has been amended to reflect UK institutions to ensure that the current arrangements will continue to be operable in the event that the UK leaves the EU without a deal on 29 March 2019. That is the purpose of these regulations.

I was asked a number of questions; I shall endeavour to answer them all. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked about the relationship between the FSA, FSS, and IFSA after exit. I agree with the noble Baroness that securing a strong partnership is important. It is a matter for further discussion but we recognise its importance and are endeavouring to work together closely with that aim in mind. She also asked about RASFF with respect to the Food Standards Agency. I reassure her again that we want to secure a strong and effective partnership with EFSA. That is one of the Government’s top food safety priorities and we will continue to work with EFSA as we continue our negotiations with the EU.

The agreement that we have reached for the implementation period allows the UK to participate in some EU bodies and agencies, including EFSA. It is acknowledged that this is in the best interests of both sides, particularly as UK contributions to EFSA through expert participation and the sharing of data and information are well recognised. The exact arrangements for UK participation in EFSA are a matter for the next phase of the negotiations, and part of wider discussions on co-operation between UK authorities and EU agencies. I cannot provide more details at this stage because I do not have them; they are a matter for negotiation.

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Given the importance of these issues—this is life-saving information—the Government have had two and a half years to do this and we are told that it has been a top priority. We know that, even if we leave the EU at the end of March or May, or whenever, there will be years of negotiations from that point. There is no certainty on exit day; we get certainty only at the end of this very long period of renegotiation of trade deals, relationships with institutions and so on. In the meantime, we are all concerned about the safety of our food. Telling us that we are working very hard and all want a close relationship is encouraging and helpful, but it is not what we need.

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My Lords, I recognise the frustrations but they are part of the negotiations. These SIs do not address the wider implications of what the noble Baroness is seeking, but I can assure her that food safety is the highest priority for the Government and that we are world leaders in ensuring the highest food standards. Those standards in food safety and quality will not be diminished. But I understand and recognise the frustration. If I had the answers or an understanding of where we are going—I do not think anybody has that at the moment—I would do my best to provide those answers.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, also asked about food and feeding ports and what she called the power grab by Ministers. The powers conferred on Ministers, as the noble Baroness will know, are subject to normal controls associated with SIs and must be informed by published, independent advice from the FSA and FSS. That will not change. The noble Baroness, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked whether the FSA has suitable resources. Some £40 million of extra funding last year and £16 million this year have been made available. It is also intended to recruit 140 new staff, who will boost the capabilities of the National Food Crime Unit. This SI programme will ensure that that is in place.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked whether 60 minutes for consultations is enough. That is what we have at the moment; the law is not changing and businesses know the law already. So we are not doing anything different. Both noble Lords raised the issue that local authority capacity may be under stress. I recognise that there are challenges in local authority funding, but no major changes are intended, as I said in relation to the previous two SIs. All powers will remain in place for performance and control. The FSA has had £2 million this year and last year to support local authorities.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked about the devolved Administrations. We are of course consulting and working very closely with them; that will not change. I understand his wider points about Northern Ireland but that is not the subject of these SIs. He also asked what arrangements are in place for data security. I assure the noble Lord that the FSA has an extensive surveillance mechanism and is a very transparent organisation. As a public body it has to be audited and is responsible to Parliament. He asked which bodies will take over the various duties. Ministers will take risk-management decisions and will have adequate capacity. The FSA and FSS will take on risk assessments and we are happy that they are adequately resourced to do so.

I have already responded ON the border issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. As I said, the Government will continue to uphold its commitments under the Belfast agreement, including the avoidance of a hard border. In the event of no deal, the priorities are to keep trade as frictionless as possible to minimise new borders.

The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked whether we have enough staff to verify complaints and how this would be done if the Irish border is left open. I have already indicated that additional resources have been made available. There is dialogue between the Republic of Ireland and the UK, and that will be maintained to protect the interests of the island of Ireland as a whole.

Finally, on the cost to business, this is a similar question to the one asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and I tell both Members that the answer is the same. Businesses know the current law and no impact assessment was needed because this is under the threshold of £5 million.

I hope I have reassured noble Lords that the whole purpose of these SIs is not to minimise food and feed standards in the UK, but to maintain the highest standards that we currently enjoy, and will continue to enjoy. With that, I hope noble Lords will agree to these statutory instruments.

Motion agreed.