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House of Lords Hansard
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Brexit: Access to EU Systems
30 September 2019
Volume 799

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government how discussions are progressing regarding the United Kingdom having access to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed and the Trade Control and Expert System after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.

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My Lords, talks are intensifying and we are working to secure a new deal with the EU. The Government remain committed to maintaining the relationship with the Commission on RASFF and TRACES, which will be a matter for the next phase of negotiations as required by the Commission. It is a government priority to maintain high standards of protection for human, animal and plant health.

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Has any Minister at all read the latest report on RASFF? The clue is in the title: “Rapid Alert”. There are 10 notifications around Europe every single day, some requiring action that day. This is a 28% increase on the year before, which was 2016. Do the Government accept that, because of the rapid information transfer, EU citizens have been protected from serious food safety risks caused by some very nasty bugs—examples of which are given—that can lead to hospitalisation and sometimes be fatal? A country is either inside or outside RASFF; there is no associate membership. Which Minister will take responsibility on 1 November for the inevitable increase in food-borne diseases and their consequences? This is not about trade; it could be life and death.

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My Lords, as I said, that is precisely why the Government’s top priority is to ensure that the UK’s food remains safe. The noble Lord was a distinguished chairman of the Food Standards Agency, and he knows very well of its capacity and capability. That has been increased precisely because, whatever the scenario, it is essential that this country remains safe.

I agree with the noble Lord, and that is why, as part of the next phase of negotiations, we would like to retain access to RASFF—not only because it is in our interest but because we are the third-largest contributor to and participant in RASFF, as the noble Lord knows. We in this country contribute a lot to RASFF’s work, and that is why we are working on that. I assure your Lordships that keeping this country safe is hugely important. I take responsibility for that as the Biosecurity Minister, but for all Ministers, both in my department and in the Department of Health and Social Care, this is a prime responsibility and I am prepared to take it.

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My Lords, I listened carefully to the Minister’s Answer, but I am not clear about exactly what the Government are doing. It is all very well to say that that is in the next phase of negotiations, but what if there is a no-deal Brexit? There will be no further negotiations and we will be out of the system. RASFF is not the only notification system: there are others as well. It would be helpful to this House if he could outline the exact steps the Government have taken, as well as why he feels so confident that he can give a 100% guarantee of assurance that our food will be safe.

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I think we are all subject to 75 words, which is rather a problem.

This is why we have taken the steps to scale up our work with INFOSAN, which is 180 countries strong. New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States all participate in it. The FSA is scaling up with new expert scientific committees—as well as others—so that we can be assured that, with that expanded access to scientific expertise, the right advice can be given. New work is being undertaken to ensure that the risk assessment is finely tuned so that we are on top of things beforehand.

I am very happy to write to the noble Baroness with a response detailing why I believe that we have done everything we possibly can for all scenarios. Although I accept that RASFF is an excellent system, it will be in the next phase—to answer that question—as a requirement of the EU. A deal takes two parties, and the European Commission has said—the noble Baroness has got to hear me on this—that the discussion on RASFF and our access to it will be part of the next phase of negotiations. We are not in a position to insist.

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My Lords, the Minister will be well aware the Prime Minister keeps telling us that the important thing is to “Get Brexit done”. As he talks about the next phase of negotiations, is he confirming that we will start a whole series of complex, messy and very long negotiations if we leave on 31 October, which will mean that Brexit will in no sense be done for some years to come?

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I have no doubt that, as we have seen for the last three years, negotiations will not be straightforward. However, I have spent a lot of time in rural affairs and in rural locations talking to people and I think that, whether they voted to remain or leave, they want to get this done and move on to a domestic agenda. I cannot crystal ball gaze as to the length and time of further negotiations. Getting back to the Question, we think that RASFF has a lot of merit, clearly we would like a deal, and we think that we have a part to play in RASFF outside the European Union.

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What does the Minister consider to be the risks we face if we leave without a deal, are outside RASFF, new arrangements have not been negotiated, and there appears to be no substitute for the alert system? As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, it identifies something like 28 dangerous bugs released into the food environment every day.

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First, if food was sent to this country from within the EU, there is under European Union law a requirement that we would be notified. That is in place, and I have already said that the FSA is expanding its contacts and increasing our level of engagement with the International Food Safety Authorities Network, and scaled up the FSA’s capacity. Some 180 countries including New Zealand, Australia and Canada are involved. We have heard from them, and they are not complaining about the capability of INFOSAN.