Animal Health, Plant Health, Seeds and Seed Potatoes (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Approve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 3rd April 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:30 pm, 3rd April 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his introduction to this SI and for arranging a helpful briefing beforehand. I also declare an interest as the chair of Rothamsted Enterprises, which is part of a research institute that does considerable research into plants and seeds.

When I read through this SI, I had a very real sense of déjà vu as, of course, these are issues we have debated before. I do not intend to repeat everything I said about the importance of biodiversity at that time. Many of those issues were captured expertly by the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee report, Brexit: Plant and Animal Biosecurity. The committee made the point:

“Geographical proximity means that the EU will always be a key source of biosecurity risks to the UK”,

and therefore argued that it was essential that the UK Government negotiate continued participation in as many of the EU’s notification and intelligence-sharing networks as possible.

The Commons European Statutory Instruments Committee also intervened to argue that the proposed SI should be upgraded to affirmative, because of its political and legal importance. We agree with that analysis. Could the Minister update the House on where we have reached in discussions with EU partners on shared intelligence and continued co-operation on biosecurity issues post Brexit? Can he update us on the plans for a UK database to capture biosecurity alerts and share information with the EU?

Turning to the substance of this SI, we accept that these amendments to the original SIs are necessary. However, we are also concerned that they are the product of what seems a rushed job, in which errors and unintended consequences will be inevitable. The original SIs were debated only a fortnight ago and now we are back here again, correcting new errors and omissions that have surfaced. I have to say that, for an SI intended to correct minor errors, there seem to be rather a lot of them.

Luckily, these have been identified before our potential Brexit day, but if a no-deal Brexit goes through, I am sure we will still be playing catch-up on other errors that come to light in months to come. Indeed, the Explanatory Memorandum makes it clear that since this SI went to the sifting committee, further changes have been made to the text. I wonder whether the sifting committee has been notified of that, because adding wording at that late stage, however minor it might be, seems a rather strange way to go about the process.

This is the inevitable consequence of civil servants and lawyers working under unreasonable pressure and parliamentarians not having enough time to review the legislation thoroughly. The Minister said that biosecurity concerns were paramount. Can he reassure the House that he is confident that our biosecurity will not be compromised by the need for these and other corrections, some of which may not even have been identified yet? Has an internal risk assessment been carried out to measure the threat of a biosecurity breach through incomplete legislative barriers?

Throughout this whole process, one of our major concerns has been the capacity to check materials coming across the EU border into the UK. We have never been convinced that there are sufficient vets and inspectors to check imports into the UK thoroughly. Can the Minister assure us that all regulated plant material brought into this country via the EU from third countries will be checked for pests and diseases? Can he also update us on the controls that will apply for animal and plant products crossing between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland?

On the specific changes, the Explanatory Memorandum addresses the regulation of seeds for unlisted vegetable varieties. The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, gave some interesting examples. It goes on to explain that the regulations provide an amendment to allow a two-year interim period for the marketing of these varieties. The reason given in paragraph 2.15 is that it is,

“for the purpose of gaining knowledge and practical experience during cultivation in England”.

When I read this, I thought it sounded rather patronising to horticultural specialists, implying that they need to build on their practical experience. It rather implied that they did not understand the nature of the seeds that they were cultivating. We have heard a little clarification of the purpose of that interim two-year break, but it would be helpful if the Minister could clarify a little more.

Paragraph 2.10 of the Explanatory Memorandum refers to another SI on plant health in which provisions are out of date, meaning that we will need another SI before Brexit day. This issue was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. Can the Minister update the House on the progress of this separate SI? Has it now been laid, considered and agreed by this House?

Finally, may I raise the territorial range of this SI? In his introduction, the Minister set out some of the explanation. I understand that different parts of the instrument apply differently—some to the whole of the UK, some to England and Wales and some to Northern Ireland. If only part of this SI relates to Scotland, are there good reasons why the Government have chosen to have a separate policy on some aspects of this? As the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said, what is the justification for a pick and mix, which is what seems to be happening at the moment? What are the implications for businesses, which are having to operate under those separate regimes when some things are UK-wide and some are devolved? I understand that there is a framework agreement, but I do not think that on issues such as biosecurity, it was ever intended that they should be mixed up in this way.

It would be helpful if the Minister could explain which sections refer to Scotland alone, and what steps are being taken to create a UK-wide biosecurity framework with shared powers and responsibilities? Are we providing leadership at a national level to try to ensure that happens? It is in everyone’s interest. I look forward to his response.