Amendment 257

Agriculture Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 11:30 pm on 23rd July 2020.

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Baroness Neville-Rolfe:

Moved by Baroness Neville-Rolfe

257: Clause 35, page 33, line 9, at end insert—“( ) Before making regulations under this section, the Secretary of State must consult anyone reasonably likely to be affected by the regulations and lay a report summarising the responses to that consultation before Parliament.”

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Conservative

In moving this amendment, I remind the Committee again of my interest as chair of Assured Food Standards, commonly known as Red Tractor—a world-leading food chain assurance scheme used, in some form, by every major retailer and food service operator in the UK. It is owned by the entire food chain and allows the free flow of certified food and drink across the UK.

Part 5 of the Bill, particularly Clause 35 on marketing standards, is very important and wide-ranging, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said during discussion on the previous group. It permits the Government, with only the safeguard of an affirmative resolution procedure, to make regulations of a stunningly wide kind, from the definition of agricultural products, their labelling, packaging and claimed attributes, to the farming methods used. These are backed up by highly intrusive enforcement powers, such as powers of entry, inspection, seizure and monetary penalties. Clearly, much of this activity was previously regulated in Brussels. We need powers to operate in the new world beyond the carryover provisions in previous Brexit legislation.

However, as someone concerned with setting and improving standards, farm and factory inspection, and generating consumer awareness and support for British produce—we cover everything except eggs and fish, for historical reasons—I would like to hear much more from the Minister on his intentions. All assurance schemes, such as the RSPCA, Soil Association, LEAF and any devolved variants, have an interest in such plans. However, as the largest such scheme, assuring over £14 billion of British food and drink, and with regular inspections by UKAS-accredited bodies underpinning safety, traceability, animal welfare and environmental protection, we have the biggest interest.

We can also contribute most to future success directly and as agents of government bodies such as the Environment Agency. We can help to promote export success, and I know from operating around the world that, especially in Asia, certified standards are very important after decades of food safety problems in certain markets. We can be the flagship of British food and farming. Without EU country of origin labelling rules we can promote it better, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, said among his wise words.

Some of this is in the realm of developing policy, and we all await the Dimbleby findings with great impatience. However, my amendment is designed to require a proper consultation process before new regulations are made on marketing standards, and a report to Parliament summarising the responses.

In his comments on the previous group, the Minister suggested that the requirement to consult arises in food law already and would bite here. That is helpful, but many of us, coming at these provisions from different angles, as we do, would like to see a provision here too, given the scale and breadth of the powers proposed, which could make or break many rural food or drink operators.

I would also like confirmation that impact assessments will be made and published on such draft regulations. This seemed to be the helpful response that the Minister gave to the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, and my noble friend Lord Lindsay at Second Reading.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on moving this amendment. The Red Tractor has much to commend it; I expressed one or two reservations about it but I fully endorse the call for a consultation on the regulations. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will look favourably on the amendment.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I spoke too soon about the fact that we may reach our target tonight, but we are nearly there. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, explained her reason for tabling her amendment, which is about assured schemes. They are extremely important in improving food standards but, as she said, this measure could make or break some small food companies.

I have looked at the amendment and where it comes in the Bill, and I find it unnecessarily restrictive. It is important that the Secretary of State should consult those likely to be affected by the regulations in Part 5 on marketing standards, organic products and carcass classifications, but there is a limit. In previous debates, we heard that the UK lags far behind other European Union states in the incidence of organic farming. Most supermarkets have sections where organic produce is properly labelled and displayed, enabling shoppers to make an informed choice. It is important that we promote organic food.

In her amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, wants the Secretary of State to

“consult anyone reasonably likely to be affected by the regulations”.

I find “anyone reasonably likely to be affected” difficult. “Anyone” seems unreasonable. It is a catch-all that I am not sure can be delivered. I remember a case when a child regularly complained to a crisp manufacturer that he was not completely satisfied with the packet of crisps he had purchased. The packet stated that anyone “not completely satisfied” could have a replacement. The dialogue between this enterprising child and the manufacturer went on for some time until the manufacturer realised that it was dealing with a child and called a halt to it. I give this as an example of why we should be very careful about exactly what wording we have in Bill. The Secretary of State should consult but the question of with whom needs to be more tightly worded, otherwise he or she could consult the whole population.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, we know that the vast majority of marketing regulations have been set by the EU in recent decades. As part of that process, there has been a healthy level of engagement with producers and consumers. The expertise on the subject demonstrated by noble Lords this evening is extremely incisive, as evidenced in the opening proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe.

In future, when we are outside the European Community, although the rules will be retained immediately after the end of the transition period, there will be scope for the United Kingdom to depart from that way of working either incrementally or wholesale. Whatever the scale of that change may be, it will be most important to understand what information consumers will want from producers and what the cost and bureaucracy of such requirements will be in the short, medium and longer term.

A Government would not change any other major areas of regulation without first consulting and before laying a summary report on responses before Parliament, so it is curious and somewhat remiss that no requirement to consult is built into the Bill as drafted. We therefore support Amendment 257.

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her amendment. Before any changes are made to the marketing standards, stakeholder engagement and public consultation will need to take place. Any organisation which represents the interests of the UK agriculture industry will be given the opportunity to put forward their views.

I say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport, that marketing standards are covered by food law and a duty to consult is contained in Article 9 of Regulation 178/2002. This regulation will become retained EU law via the powers in the EU withdrawal Act. The regulation states:

“There shall be open and transparent public consultation, directly or through representative bodies, during the preparation, evaluation and revision of food law, except where the urgency of the matter does not allow it.”

It is the procedure that a summary of the responses to the consultation will be published on GOV.UK within 12 weeks of the consultation closing.

Any statutory instruments made using the power will also be accompanied by an Explanatory Memorandum and a proportionate analysis or full regulatory impact assessment where net direct cost to business is above £5 million. The impact assessment will provide the rationale for government intervention, details of all the options considered and the expected costs and benefits, particularly for businesses. With that reassurance, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Conservative

I thank noble Lords for their support in this short debate. I think that there is a general feeling that consultation on new rules and regulations is extremely important. The Minister has helpfully acknowledged that and pointed out that some provisions already exist that may give us most of what we want. I would like to study this, because the wording that he gave us suggested that it was consultation either generally or with representative bodies, and that where there was urgency there would not be consultation. Given the breadth and scale of the powers that we are talking about in this Bill—I focused on marketing standards, but it may go more broadly—we should return to the issue of what the right consultation provisions are. However, in view of the helpful comments that have been made and the lateness of the hour, I am happy to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 257 withdrawn.

Clause 35 agreed.

Amendments 258 and 259 not moved.

Schedule 4 agreed.

Clause 36: Organic products

Amendment 260 not moved.

Clause 36 agreed.

Clause 37: Organic products: supplementary