Brexit: Plant and Animal Biosecurity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:18 pm on 15th May 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Crossbench 8:18 pm, 15th May 2019

My Lords, I declare my interests as recorded in the register and thank the chairman of our committee, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for his excellent leadership as well as his superb introduction to the content of the report.

I am not a betting man, but if I were, I would be happy to place a bet that, within the next 10 years, we will have a major biosecurity crisis in this country. Why? We have just to look back in history. We heard in earlier speeches about foot and mouth disease—which came in 1967 and again in 2001—Dutch elm disease and ash dieback. I will add to that list BSE. So the record of the past is that at least once every 10 years we have a major biosecurity crisis, but for at least the last 40 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, so clearly articulated, we have been under the shelter of a Europe-wide system of protection. As we move out of that protection system, the chances of a biosecurity crisis, as others have said, will increase rather than decrease. In that context, I want to focus specifically on food safety and biosecurity.

Noble Lords will recall that in the wake of the biggest food safety and biosecurity challenge of the past 100 years, namely the BSE crisis of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Government of the day established a new, non-ministerial department, the Food Standards Agency in 2000—I should declare that I was its first chairman—to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food safety and biosecurity. Following our model, in 2003 the European Union established a Europe-wide agency, the EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, based on the UK model. Indeed, it pinched the chief executive of our Food Standards Agency to become its first chief executive. As a consequence of the arrangements set up in 2003, we are now part of the Europe-wide system for risk assessment, biosecurity and other food safety alerts, and risk management, as the noble Lords, Lord Teverson and Lord Browne of Ladyton, emphasised. As a result of Brexit, if Brexit happens, we will leave this well established and effective system and replicate it, as best we can, on our own.

I am confident, because we took evidence from its chairman, that the Food Standards Agency will do its utmost to ensure that food safety and biosecurity standards are maintained. Nevertheless, the UK will lose out. We will no longer, as others have said, have immediate access to the rapid alert system and the real-time, helicopter view of biosecurity that this system provides. We were told that the Food Standards Agency has made thorough preparations for the post-Brexit world and has been provided with extra resources to do so, which is very much to be welcomed. However, one crucial aspect of the new FSA role remains to be clarified and I hope the Minister will be able to provide a clear and unambiguous answer today. When the Food Standards Agency was set up, its role was to both assess and manage risks. This was crucial because the whole point of an independent department was to ensure that political considerations and conflicts between consumer and producer interests, which were perceived as important in MAFF’s attitude to food safety management and biosecurity, did not influence decisions. The Food Standards Agency, in its 19 years of existence, has been successful in rebuilding the shattered trust in the UK food system and associated biosecurity, which had reached a low point as a result of BSE and salmonella in eggs, for example.

Since the EU-wide system was established, risk-management decisions have been made at the European level by a committee on which the UK is represented by the Food Standards Agency. What will happen after Brexit? Initially, it appeared that Health Ministers wished to seize back control of risk-management decisions, leaving the FSA in a purely risk-assessment role. I quote from a letter written to the committee by the then Minister for Public Health, Steve Brine, who wrote on 3 December last year:

“Ministers will then take the final decisions”.

At that time it appeared that Ministers either had no knowledge of the history of why the Food Standards Agency was set up or were suffering from severe amnesia. However, subsequently the same Public Health Minister seemed to confirm that he had changed his mind. When he gave oral evidence to our sub-committee on 6 March and was asked whether it would be his intention to hand risk management back to the Food Standards Agency, he replied:

“It most certainly would, yes”.

So I seek confirmation from the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, this evening whether it is indeed the position of the Government that, after Brexit, the Food Standards Agency will have responsibility not just for risk assessment but also for risk management in relation to biosecurity as it affects our food. Furthermore, if the Government’s position has changed, as indicated by Steve Brine on 6 March, will the Minister inform us when the formal powers to undertake this role will be given to the Food Standards Agency?

Finally, very briefly, while I am talking about biosecurity, I should like to mention another aspect of the agency’s work, namely labelling of food. This is important for consumer choice and protection. As the Minister will be aware, in 2010 the Government decided to strip the Food Standards Agency of its responsibility for nutritional and food labelling. The logic of this decision was never properly explained: it was generally assumed that it was the result of pressure from the food industry, objecting to the agency’s effective role as a regulator. Food labelling is an EU competence, so Brexit provides an opportunity to hand back to the FSA part of its original remit. In light of the recent concerns about allergen labelling and the Prime Minister’s announcement of a review of labelling, this is surely the moment to rethink departmental roles. Furthermore, the FSA has responsibility for labelling in Northern Ireland and Wales, as does FSA Scotland north of the border. Does the Minister therefore agree that Brexit provides an ideal opportunity to bring England into line with the rest of the United Kingdom?