Exiting the European Union (Agriculture)

Part of Integrated Care Regulations – in the House of Commons at 10:14 pm on 18th March 2019.

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Photo of David Drew David Drew Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:14 pm, 18th March 2019

I am delighted to be taking part in this debate at this fairly late hour. We could have done this in a Committee Room upstairs at 6 o’clock, so it is good to know that the timetabling really is working well. At least we have a packed Gallery wanting to listen to our every word. We would not have had that if we had been doing this upstairs at 6 o’clock, because our Second Delegated Legislation Committee earlier was also packed—with no members of the public. There is something about what we are saying or doing that is not quite hitting the public’s imagination. However, these draft regulations relate to an important issue for the organic industry. The topic of the earlier Committee—the movement of animals—was also important, for reasons that I set out then, and I do not intend to repeat them.

The Lords debated the two statutory instruments that we are considering now on 13 March, so there has been some scrutiny. However, our caveat, as always, is that the process has been terribly rushed, and none of us knows quite what the repercussions will be. Although the civil servants are doing a wonderful job of cutting and pasting 43 years’-worth of European regulations, no one knows how well that is being done. We will not see the impact for some time, but there will be an impact.

We do not have any particular problem with taking the two statutory instruments together, but the issue at the heart of all this, as has been picked up by the National Farmers Union and the Soil Association, is to what extent we can guarantee that the quality of our organic industry will not be undermined by cheaper imports. That is a real threat, because the proposed trade deals are with countries that have different organic standards. The US, for example, does things very differently from us when it comes to the treatment of organic produce, both in growing it and in trying to keep it as fresh as possible for as long as possible.

It took some time to work all this regulation through with our EU neighbours. There was no quick fix, and our approach to organic standards is different from that of some other EU countries. It is good to see the former Minister, George Eustice, in his place, because he signed off one of these statutory instruments, so I am glad that he has come to check that we are doing a good job. He may have something to say about what he did in signing it off. The draft regulations are about ensuring that we not only do not dilute our standards, but keep our export markets in place. The last thing we want is to shut down our potential future exports when we have been successful. Even though we are still a major importer of organic produce, we have a good reputation based on what we sell abroad.

I have some questions for the Minister; it would be a surprise if I did not. The first is about what would happen if we crashed out of the EU on 29 March. What guarantees that existing regulations and, dare I say, the certification bodies are able to handle a purely UK-based measure of good organic quality? We already have different measures, as there are six mainland bodies and two from Northern Ireland, about which Jim Shannon will no doubt say something later. We need to be absolutely clear that those bodies can undertake proper scrutiny of what is good-quality food, because if our standards slip, we will lose our export markets.

Although the Soil Association is by far the largest certification body, it is not the only one, so if things go wrong next week, what is in place to ensure that this industry, which is a microcosm of British agriculture, but a very important part of it, can cope with whatever is coming its way? Those are the concerns that have been expressed to me and, no doubt, the Minister. If we go through this transition period, as we hope, we will have 21 months available. What measures will be put in place to ensure that we do not in any way undermine the quality of produce in this country during that period? Labelling is so important. In this area of agriculture, we need to know that what is on the label is actually being delivered. We have to get that right, but we also have to be clear that anyone in the EU from whom we import materials during those 21 months is keeping to their side of the bargain.

This is really about how important the Government see this industry as being. It is still a nascent industry in which we want more farmers involved; 6,000 producers are defined as organic, and we want that number to increase, because this is a successful niche market. We would hope that the Government had good strategies to ensure that growth continues.

As usual, I have my ask about access to the TRACES—trade control and expert system—database. Presumably, that has been pretty important in enabling us to know that things that are defined as organic across the EU can be defined in that way, and so can be put on a database in which there is some commonality. What progress is being made on that? I asked the Minister earlier about the animal issues that we were looking at during debate on the agricultural statutory instrument. It would be interesting to know what progress the Government were making on the alternative to the TRACES database, or whether they are able to pay money to keep their place on the database. I am not totally sure about that. In the interim, will we be stuck with some manual processing of the certification measures?

It would have been helpful if we had got the Agriculture Bill through, because what we are dealing with here might have been part and parcel of that. Sadly, we hear nothing of the Agricultural Bill or, sadly for my hon. Friend Luke Pollard, the Fisheries Bill. We rushed through those before Christmas, so that we could have a comprehensive approach to fishing and agriculture, but sadly those Bills seem to have disappeared into the ether. I hope that we will not be faced with their having to be reintroduced in a new Session, as some of us worked hard on them. It would be hard for some of us to have to go through them all again, given that even though we disagreed on elements of those Bills, we did make some progress. We were hoping that on Third Reading, and particularly on Report, we would be able to make further progress and improvements to that legislation.

In conclusion, I hope that the Government have got the message that we have tried to play our part in scrutiny, and in looking seriously at these important bits of legislation, albeit at nearly half-past 10 at night. We have a number of other SIs before us this week— I believe I have seven, which for me is a record—so we will be meeting on a regular basis. It is important that we undertake this scrutiny to the best of our ability, and we can do that only if the Government are absolutely clear on why they are bringing legislation forward, and on how they will at least maintain standards and, if at all possible, improve them.