Amendment 236A

Part of Agriculture Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 23rd July 2020.

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Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative 9:30 pm, 23rd July 2020

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. I am delighted to support Amendment 255 and I entirely endorse his comments. Subject to his decision, I would be willing to support a similar amendment on Report, if that is helpful at this stage.

I shall confine my remarks to the amendments in this group that relate to labelling and marketing, particularly Amendment 256 in my name. I am delighted to have the support of the noble Baronesses, Lady Henig, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb and Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. I am very grateful to them for their support.

If this wording is familiar to the House and to my noble friend the Minister, indeed it should be. It is the form of words that was adopted by my noble friend Lady Fairhead during the Trade Bill, which I think was technically the rollover Trade Bill, that we debated a year ago but which then did not pass because of the general election. I was delighted that after some toing and froing and lots of debate in Committee, on Report my noble friend Lady Fairhead literally adopted this wording, so I therefore take it to be government policy. Obviously I have adapted it, taking advice, to make sure that it fits the remit of the Bill before us today.

I take great heart from the fact that my noble friend said again, in winding up a previous debate, that the Government will keep and raise our own environmental standards. What concerns me here is that we seem to be disadvantaging our own farmers and producers in two ways. One is that while we are keeping the same high standards that we currently have and possibly raising them even higher, we seem to be contemplating importing produce of lower standards in marketing, environmental health, animal welfare and hygiene. That to me is just not a Conservative thing to do; I cannot believe we are even contemplating it. That is why the thrust of my Amendment 256 is that the regulations within this clause cannot be used to make provisions that will have the effect of lowering animal health, hygiene or welfare standards for agricultural products below those established in the EU or the UK.

This is something that we are already familiar with, having been members of the European Union since 1973. I remember that in my days briefly in practice as a European lawyer we relied very heavily on the original Article 36 of the Treaty of Rome, which basically set out a limited number of exceptions to the free movement of goods, specifying that if it was deemed necessary on the grounds of the protection of the health and life of humans, animals or plants then under Article 36 an exemption could be applied for to prevent those products from coming into another European country from a neighbouring country or another member state. I see that that is now increasingly coming into trade deals that are negotiated multilaterally or bilaterally under the auspices of the World Trade Organization, so I am hoping that my noble friend will say that when it comes to the end of the transition period, this is where we will be.

I caution against something that Minister Prentis said in the other place: that the Government are considering consulting on mandatory labelling at the end of the transition period. Labelling seems very attractive. It is something that we looked at after the horsemeat scandal, because I am afraid that supermarkets were caught a little on the hop; they had not conducted a full test of the probity of the supply chain, and that is why we had the case of fraud and the passing off as beef, lamb and other products what was effectively horsemeat.

The difficulty is that labelling does not encourage people to eat home-produced meat, which is something we have discussed in the context of other clauses in the Bill. Another example I would give in this regard is what happened when we unilaterally banned the use of sow stalls and tethers. Technically, the Red Tractor label is meant to advise people that the pork, lamb and beef that we produce in this country—particularly, in this instance, the pork—is produced to those high standards. But that is not the basis on which people buy their food; they buy on price. It can have as pretty a red label as you like, but people will often still buy the cheapest cut of meat.

The other issue with labelling is this. How am I, as a consumer eating out in a restaurant or other catering establishment, to know that what I am eating is from this country and meets the high standards that the Government have asked our own producers to meet? This could create a two-tier system and mean that only those who can afford the higher prices of our home-produced food would be able to buy it.

As for what we are being told, I shall repeat again what the Minister, Victoria Prentis, said in Committee on the Agriculture Bill in the other place. She said that

“we are retaining existing UK legislation, and at the end of the transition period, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will convert on to the UK statute book all EU food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards. That will ensure that our high standards, including import requirements, continue to apply.”—[Official Report, Commons, Agriculture Bill Committee, 5/3/20; col. 372.]

As was helpfully pointed out to us by a letter from the Food Standards Agency, the difficulty with that—I will take as long as it takes here, because this is the crux of the Bill—is that those standards are enshrined in statutory instruments, so primary legislation is not needed to amend them; only a subsequent statutory instrument would be needed.

I hope that we can learn from previous mistakes and will seek to maintain the high standards that we have and ensure that we refuse to accept any standards lower than those that our own producers meet.