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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:41 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Browning Baroness Browning Conservative 3:41 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, I am always pleased to follow the noble Lord. I am pleased also to welcome the two maiden speeches in today’s debate. I will focus on a really quite narrow area. In some ways it follows on from what the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said about health and safety in the workplace. My focus is on agriculture and the food chain.

I welcome the fact that we shall see an agriculture Bill, although we do not know the exact form it will take, but in reading the briefing, I see that the Government are proposing support for,

“farmers and land managers to ensure a smooth and gradual transition away from the … Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to a system where farming efficiently and improving the environment go hand and hand”.

Of course that is to be welcomed, but I am particularly focused on the fact that it also says that the Government will champion British food,

“with a transparent and fair supply chain from farm to fork”,

and that they will also recognise producer organisations.

Many years ago, when I was an Agriculture Minister—and, I have to say, probably responsible for much of the regulation that still applies to the food sector today—one of the first things I did was to say at a conference that I thought that British food was the best, only to be told by officials that I was not allowed to say that. I carried on saying it. I notice several former Agriculture Ministers in the Chamber today, so I hope they will know where I am coming from on this.

I welcome the fact that we hear today that the Prime Minister has secured a deal. There are many steps to go, we know, but after three years that is to be welcomed. But regulation in the EU has been fraught. We have heard the myths of EU regulation as far as the food chain is concerned, and, to be honest, some of them are myths. Some of them, though, are quite deliberate ploys. I am not always sure that the general public really understand how the EU has worked, particularly when we are faced with new regulations. I remember having to defend the right of the British milk chocolate industry, of which we have many brand leaders, to continue to call its products milk chocolate when the EU tried to stop that because they did not contain a high enough percentage of cocoa solids. That was not just overregulation for the sake of it; it was down to raw competition. Sometimes, when other countries and other manufacturers saw that the UK had a lead in certain sectors, things would be brought forward which one had to defend against very robustly. It is true that there have been real problems with regulation in the food chain as far as the EU is concerned but, in the main, I believe that the EU-based regulation we currently have, which covers our whole food and production sector, is good. It protects not only the consumer but the wider interests of this country.

I am not really worried about having to sell our food products to the EU in the future because it will be like any other trade deal. If the people buying from you set the terms and conditions under which they wish to buy that product, it is a very simple commercial decision on the part of manufacturers: are you or are you not going to provide that product with that specification? It is something that goes on worldwide and has done for centuries. I think that, in practice, we will see that in the food chain manufacturers and processers will stick very closely to the rules that already exist in the EU, if only to protect the markets. There are other issues, such as taxes and tariffs, and of course the Government come into those areas as well.

However, I am very concerned about imports and the home-based market. I say this as a word of caution to my noble friends on the Front Bench. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, talked about getting rid of lots of red tape and regulation. If we were to take that sort of slash-and-burn approach to our existing regulations in the food chain, it would not only damage the home market but would, I believe, be an open door to imports which would potentially damage not only the consumer but the safety of this country.

I hope that I am not overexaggerating this but we all know, for example, that campylobacter and salmonella in eggs and poultry is a danger—it is not good either for the industry or for the human beings who end up consuming it. There have been warnings, particularly from the British Egg Industry Council, which has expressed concern about the importation of liquid and dried eggs. Of course, we rely too on the protection of brands, of both manufacturers and those established by supermarket chains in this country, which will almost certainly want to protect their consumers. However, that leaves open the whole big industry of catering, where very often the lack of labelling and information means that people do not know what they are eating.

In making sure that that regulation is maintained, I hope my noble friends will take into account the protection from animal and plant diseases that regulation affords; animal welfare, of which we have a very high standard—it is about time the European Union got rid of its veal crates like we did; environmental damage, which can also be caused; and of course the safety of consumers’ health. Nobody wants to see products on supermarket shelves or in our restaurants which lead to a situation where there are diseases that we all know have a dangerous effect. I am thinking in particular of things such as veterinary medicines, which we may not know are in products and which are retained in animal carcasses; at the moment, we have regulations that protect the food chain from that. I look to the Front Bench to give assurances on those sorts of things. Let us not have a bonfire of regulation; it is a bonfire of vanities.