Brexit: Food Prices and Availability (EUC Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:19 pm on 25th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:19 pm, 25th April 2019

My Lords, I always think that it is very important to have further advice when something is technical. However, I open by declaring my farming interests as set out in the register.

I am of course most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and all the committee members for this Select Committee report on food prices and availability post EU exit. I do not think that the delay to this debate has diminished the quality of our considerations or the subject matter of the report, in that it has provided a long fuse and has helped the department.

I am particularly delighted that the noble Earl, Lord Devon, has chosen this debate to make his wide-ranging, powerful and historic maiden speech. I join your Lordships in very much looking forward to further contributions from him, when his experiences of rural Devon and beyond will be of much interest and value. I do not propose to engage in a discussion about Cornish and Devon cream interests, but I noted that exchange.

At the time of publication, the Government welcomed the report and the issues it raised, such as tariffs and animal welfare. A number of them have helped shape, and continue to help shape, the work of my department.

The report’s first recommendations refer to the need to negotiate new free trade agreements that allow the continuation of tariff-free imports of food from the EU and to roll over existing agreements. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, that we agree: the Government want us to leave the EU with a deal. Clearly, as most of your Lordships have understood, we have, as all individual departments have prudently done, prepared for any outcome, and that has involved considerable work with business and stakeholders. That is why the Government announced on 13 March a temporary tariff regime that would apply if the UK were to leave the EU without a deal—a point referred to by the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth.

In developing that temporary—I emphasise, temporary—tariff regime, we were deeply mindful of the risk of increases to consumer food prices that the committee highlighted in its report. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and other noble Lords are absolutely right: food prices are of critical importance to us all but they have a dramatic impact on the most vulnerable in our country. The Government brought forward this regime for a no-deal scenario with the aim of mitigating any price increases that consumers might face from tariffs by setting tariffs to zero on 87% of total current imports by value. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, that that point, highlighted in the report, was immensely valuable. The report was published some time ago but this temporary tariff regime was designed, and will continue to be designed, to ensure that we look to the interests of the consumer.

A number of historically protected agricultural sectors—beef, sheepmeat, chicken and other poultry, pigmeat, milled rice, butter and some cheese products—would have their tariffs maintained under this temporary tariff regime. I say to the noble Earl, Lord Devon, that we have sought to find the right balance on the question of clotted cream, liberalising tariffs to maintain current supply chains and avoiding an increase in consumer prices. Cornish clotted cream will, however, continue to receive the protection of a geographical indication in the event of no deal, although I say in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, that we are all working for a deal.

I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, that we have sought a policy that strikes the right balance. He referred to farming interests. As I said, we have sought the right balance between exposing sectors to an unreasonable level of disruption and liberalising tariffs to maintain the supply chains and avoid consumer price increases.

The question of Northern Ireland was raised and there are a number of considerations here. Diverting goods through Ireland solely to avoid tariffs would of course be unlawful. Although the vast majority of taxpayers are compliant, we recognise that there remains a minority who may well seek to breach the rules. HMRC remains committed to promoting compliance and tackling avoidance, and it will take steps to ensure that, should there be a temporary arrangement, this is not abused.

Regarding the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, I will look at Hansard because, given the time, I need to give a more detailed reply. However, in terms of Northern Ireland goods going to the Republic of Ireland, the UK Government would be able to take unilateral measures, although we could guarantee only those steps under the control of the UK Government. Although we do not wish this to happen, if at any point we are in a no-deal situation, we are committed to entering into urgent discussions with the European Commission and the Irish Government to agree jointly long-term measures to avoid the hard border—something that we must surely seek to do.

On the continuity of existing trade agreements, the committee also expressed concern about the potential impacts that failing to roll over EU free trade agreements could have on the price and availability of food in the UK. In the event of the UK leaving the EU with a deal, the EU has agreed to notify partners with which it has a free trade agreement that the UK should continue to be treated as though it were still a member state during the implementation period. Similarly, during the implementation period the UK would continue to apply the EU’s common external tariff, including the preferential tariffs and quotas applied to imports from the EU’s FTA partners. This would mean that imports of food from these countries would be able to continue on current terms.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, that we have signed agreements with countries accounting for more than half of the UK’s total trade with EU FTA partners, and we continue to progress remaining outstanding agreements. Discussions with many other countries are at an advanced stage and we are still working to secure as many continuity FTAs as possible. We will of course inform Parliament and businesses as soon as we conclude agreements with partner countries. As the UK will charge no tariffs on imports of many goods, even where no free trade agreement is in place, the impact on UK food prices of not rolling over agreements will be smaller than it otherwise might be.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, asked about the WTO and the splitting of TRQs. WTO members which disagreed with the way that the TRQs had been split have had an opportunity to lodge their objections. There will now follow a formal process of negotiation with those countries.

On non-tariff barriers, the report covers the need for the frictionless import of food to continue. Defra is, and remains, actively engaged with the cross-government Border Delivery Group on the different activities. These include, for example, ensuring flows across the border of passengers and their pets, food, live animals, fish, animal products and endangered species, as well as the movement of parcels and freight. Working with the Border Delivery Group, our objectives for the border reflect the Government’s objectives in all scenarios—an efficient border facilitating food supply that protects the nation from biosecurity risks and enables our food and farming industry to flourish through trade internationally.

Upon the UK’s exit from the EU, for animal, animal product and high-risk food and feed imports no new border checks will be introduced except for certain goods that come from third countries and travel through the EU before they arrive in the UK. This is a continuation of the pre-EU exit arrangements, which we know manage disease risk effectively. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, raised biosecurity. As the Minister with responsibility for biosecurity, I would certainly not accept any diminution in our biosecurity standards.

To minimise disruption for users, allow the continued movement of goods and help maintain our biosecurity and food safety, Defra has developed a new system for imports: the import of products, animals, food and feed system—IPAFFS. This system is ready to be launched as required. In order to facilitate the continuous flow of trade at all UK ports, we have been working to ensure that the border is sufficiently resourced in any scenario. Defra officials have visited and maintained contact with all the major ports and airports. We have carried out detailed discussions with these ports and other stakeholders to ensure that they are prepared. Our preparations mean that we are confident that processes for dealing with imports of food will not impede the flow of goods through UK points of entry after exit.

The noble Lords, Lord Teverson and Lord Carrington, asked about the national food strategy. The Government are committed to publishing a national food strategy once we leave the EU. This work is still in a scoping stage and I cannot prejudge its focus, but we expect it to cover the entire food system from farm to fork.

The noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Carrington, and the noble Earl, Lord Devon, asked about the Agriculture Bill. I am looking forward to debating the intricacies of that Bill with your Lordships. I hope that we will bring the Bill to your Lordships’ House as soon as possible. We certainly want this legislation. It will help our farming, horticultural and forestry sectors become more profitable, and help sustain our precious natural environment.

I was pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, raised the issue of self-sufficiency in today’s debate as well as in the report. This country is certainly capable of producing more of its own food. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington raised this. Our country has a high level of food security built on a diverse range of sources including strong domestic production, where we are entirely self-sufficient in oats, barley, milk, sheep and lamb. I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, that I cannot see any scenario in which we would seek no imports from any other country. We realise that we are not in a position to grow and rear certain products in this country which we know that British consumers want to continue to enjoy. The noble Earl, Lord Devon, also raised the issue of our domestic produce. I say categorically that we have the best agricultural and horticultural products in the world. We want to encourage our domestic producers to continue to produce high-quality homegrown food.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, raised another important point, about how we use science and put the latest scientific discoveries into practice. Historically, this country has been renowned for some of its agricultural innovation; that is why I am pleased that the Government committed £160 million to the five-year agri-tech strategy in 2013. We will also continue to support British food and agricultural innovation through the £90 million Transforming Food Production initiative. It is also important that we have committed to maintain the level of farm support until the end of this Parliament.

On the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, about the Agriculture Bill and productivity—self-sufficiency in particular—the Agriculture Bill contains specific provisions targeted at supporting farmers and growers to improve their productivity by helping them access new equipment and technology. Farmers will be able to benefit from the latest agricultural practices and techniques to aid in the production of food.

There is also the issue of food as a public good. Public goods are defined in economics as having specific characteristics in terms of the operation of the market. Food does not have these characteristics and is not a public good; it is a market good. It is bought and sold by producers and consumers, and consumers are able to make choices about the food they buy. As Defra Ministers have previously stated, we are giving serious thought to how we might address concern around food production and security when the Agriculture Bill progresses.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, raised the issue of sufficient labour. Defra has put in place a number of processes to ensure that seasonal employment numbers are not adversely affected. For example, up to 2,500 non- EEA workers will be able to come to the UK this year and next for seasonal employment in the edible horticultural sector under a new pilot scheme.

The noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Teverson, and the noble Earl, Lord Devon, raised the subject of food prices. The truth is that prices are affected by weather, transport logistics, exchange rates and fuel prices. While of course the Government do not control these factors—indeed, noble Lords may recall, for instance, that just last week the press reported on the impact of last year’s weather on food prices—we work closely with industry to provide transparency for consumers. As I have already detailed, the Government are doing what they can to reduce non-tariff barriers, support our farmers and transition trade deals to control prices.

I am conscious of time, but turn to the question of standards. I will reiterate to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, what I have said, although I might want to offer a more detailed reply on eggs—in fact, I have one here. Almost all our domestic egg production is from domestic egg producers. We think they are well placed to continue to meet that production. Existing EU egg marketing standards will be retained in UK law once we leave the EU. Where the UK cannot sufficiently guarantee that imported eggs in shell for consumption are equivalent to these regulations, these eggs must be clearly labelled as not meeting the UK standard. This will provide the necessary clarity to enable consumers to make informed purchasing choices. EU egg marketing standards relate to methods of production such as free range or barn; they do not relate to hygiene standards.

I will look at what I have said in my answer because I want to place on record that I do not make the point about standards lightly. It is precisely, and I am happy to say—