The next item of business is a motion to approve a draft statutory rule (SR). I have been advised that junior Minister Gordon Lyons will move the motion on behalf of the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. The motion has been relaid by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister in order to facilitate the arrangement, and a revised Order Paper was issued earlier.
I apologise for being a little bit late; business moved on quicker than I expected.
The draft regulations before the House today are to be made under the powers that are conferred by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. They will ensure that secondary legislation relating to the use of alien and locally absent species in aquaculture continues to operate effectively at the end of the transition period in a way that ensures that Northern Ireland remains legally compliant.
The purpose of the regulations, which the proposed SR amends, is to ensure that there is adequate protection of aquatic habitats from the risks that are associated with the use of alien and locally absent species in aquaculture while contributing to the sustainable development of the aquaculture industry. While facilitating beneficial introductions, the proposed introductions of alien species and locally absent species to Northern Ireland are assessed using a risk-based approach in order to prevent interaction with indigenous species and damage to our native ecosystems.
Northern Ireland has many biological differences from other countries, and such species could have significant and unique impacts in the local context. It is vital that we protect not only our aquaculture industry from the introduction of such species but our native species and their habitats. It is, therefore, a policy of DAERA's to control and where necessary restrict movements into Northern Ireland of species that could pose a threat to aquaculture businesses and the environment.
Similar legislation is in place in other parts of the UK, which also seek to protect their aquaculture sectors and aquatic environments, with permit requirements in place for the introduction of alien and locally absent species into other parts of the UK. The UK policy on the matter is the same in that respect, and there is no policy divergence between Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK.
The draft regulations are one of a number of SRs that are being laid before the Assembly in order to ensure that Northern Ireland has a functioning statute book on and after 1 January 2021. As the draft regulations amend secondary legislation relating to offences, the 2018 withdrawal Act requires that they are subject to the draft affirmative procedure. The regulations cannot be made until the Assembly approves them.
The amendments that are made by the draft regulations are technical, but before I explain what they do, it may assist Members if I provide a brief overview of the legislative background. In 2018 and 2019, a number of statutory instruments (SIs) were made at Westminster in order to ensure that domestic legislation could operate in the event that the UK left the European Union without an agreement. Some of those SIs amended Northern Ireland legislation for which the Department has responsibility. They were taken forward at Westminster to ensure transparency and scrutiny in the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly, and they are due to come into operation at the end of the transition period. Although some of the provisions in those SIs are still needed, because they reflect the fact that the UK is no longer a member state of the European Union, some changes do not take account of the new arrangements between the EU and the UK.
Further amendments are, therefore, required to domestic legislation relating to the use of alien and locally absent species in aquaculture. The draft regulations make minor technical amendments to one piece of secondary legislation, namely the Alien and Locally Absent Species in Aquaculture Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012. They will ensure that those regulations continue to operate effectively after the transition period. In summary, the amendments remove the wording:
"or to Northern Ireland from another part of the United Kingdom" to reflect the fact that the UK is no longer a member of the EU and to ensure that we are legally compliant with our obligations.
I will briefly provide Members with detail on the effect of the proposed amendments. Regulation 4(1) of the 2012 regulations provides that a permit is required for the introduction and translocation of alien and locally absent species for use in aquaculture into Northern Ireland. It is an offence for a person to undertake the introduction of an alien species or the translocation of a locally absent species, except under, and in accordance with, the conditions of a permit issued by the Department. The 2012 regulations also allow the Department to exempt movements by way of notice from the permit requirement to translocate locally absent species into Northern Ireland from another part of the UK.
Due to those changes, the Department will no longer be able to exempt movements of locally absent species into Northern Ireland from other parts of the UK from the permit requirement. As a result, it will become an offence to move those species into Northern Ireland from other parts of the UK without a permit. That constitutes a widening of the scope of the offence contained in the 2012 regulations. As that is the case, the matter is considered to be cross-cutting with the Department of Justice. The Agriculture Minister, therefore, sought approval from the Justice Minister for the proposed rule. The Justice Minister has confirmed that she is content that the widening of the scope of the offence in the 2012 regulations is necessary and that the offence remains proportionate. She is satisfied that this will not have a disproportionate impact on the justice system.
There will be no change on the ground. I will explain that further. DAERA must be notified of all introductions. That has not changed as a result of the proposed SR, which allows for assessment of the request based on risk. Since the 2012 regulations were introduced, the Department has never introduced a permit for movements of alien species or locally absent species. That is due to the fact that there is already a licensing system in place that takes into consideration the activity, the species, its risk to the environment, and the biosecurity measures that are in place. Under Northern Ireland domestic legislation, all aquaculture businesses must hold a fish culture licence and be approved as an authorised production business by the Department.
To date, the Department has not granted any licences for the cultivation of an alien or locally absent species in an open aquaculture facility here. Any request to introduce such species, whilst considered on the basis of risk, would also have to be on the basis that the applicant holds the necessary fish culture licence and is an authorised production business. Under current environmental legislation, it is highly unlikely that we would grant a licence authorising the cultivation of species not indigenous to Northern Ireland in an open aquaculture facility, other than for certain listed species that are cultivated here. Consequently, it is not envisaged that there will be requests for permits to translocate locally absent species into such facilities here.
In addition, at the Executive meeting on 19 November, Ministers agreed to the making of the proposed regulations, subject to their approval by the Assembly. The Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee also considered the draft regulations on 5 November and agreed that they could progress to the next legislative stage.
The Examiner of Statutory Rules has considered the draft regulations and has not raised any issue in her report.
The changes contained in the draft regulations are technical in nature and do not represent a change to current policy. As I have stated, we must protect our aquaculture industry from the introduction of alien and locally absent species whilst also protecting our native species and their habitats. It has always been the policy of DAERA to control and, where necessary, restrict the movements of species into Northern Ireland, which could pose a threat to aquaculture businesses and the environment, from other parts of the UK and elsewhere.
I am, therefore, happy to support the introduction of these regulations and recommend that the Assembly consents to the motion. I commend the draft regulations to the Assembly.
I welcome the opportunity to speak as Chairperson to outline the views of the Committee.
Invasive alien species are one of the key causes of the loss of native species and harm to biodiversity. Aquaculture can be one of the routes for the introduction of new species. It is also particularly exposed to negative impacts and risks derived from invasive alien species.
Regulations concerning alien and locally absent species in aquaculture provide protection from these risks and are listed in annex 2 of the protocol. Under the terms of the withdrawal agreement and the protocol, this jurisdiction must remain aligned with the EU rules listed in the protocol.
The Alien and Locally Absent Species in Aquaculture Regulations 2012 provide for a system of permits that govern the introduction and translocation of alien and locally absent species in aquaculture into this jurisdiction. The AERA Committee considered a written briefing on the statutory rule on the Alien and Locally Absent Species (Aquaculture) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, at its meeting on 5 November.
The Committee was advised that this SR amends the 2012 regulations and makes the technical amendments required to ensure compatibility with the withdrawal agreement and the protocol at the end of the transition period.
On 5 November, the Committee indicated that it had no concerns or objections to the rule. It has been advised that there is no policy change. It has always been policy to control and, where necessary, restrict movements to here of species that could pose a threat to aquaculture businesses and the environment from other parts of these islands.
The Committee was also informed that, as a consequence of the technical amendment to regulation 4(2)(b), it will become an offence to move these species into this jurisdiction from Britain without a permit. Given that this statutory rule widens the offence, this is a cross-cutting matter with the Department of Justice. The Justice Minister has approved the amendment relating to offences contained in the statutory rule.
The Committee considered the draft SR on 10 December and was advised that a screening exercise had been carried out and no equality issues were identified. No regulatory impact assessment was required, as there will be no impact on the private, voluntary or public sectors as a result of the changes. A rural-needs screening exercise was carried out on the statutory rule and no impact was identified. There are no financial implications associated with the introduction of the rule. The statutory rule does not have any human rights implications, nor is it incompatible with EU law. It therefore complies with the requirements of section 24 of the NI Act 1998. The report of the Examiner of Statutory Rules has not identified any issues in relation to the statutory rule.
At the meeting on 10 December, one Committee member objected to the rule, leading to a vote. Four members voted for the rule, one voted against and three abstained. The Committee, therefore, recommends that the rule be approved by the Assembly.
The end appears to be in sight, with regard to the tabling of motions by my colleague and Agriculture Minister, Edwin Poots. I give my best regards to him, as he continues to recover from his recent emergency surgery. I hope that he continues to improve after his stay in hospital, and I am sure that he is being well cared for at home.
In recent weeks, much legislation has been brought before the House ahead of the 1 January deadline. From a DAERA perspective, this is one of the last pieces of legislation to be brought to the House before the Christmas recess. The continuation of this legislation is important for the protection of our environment and ecosystems in Northern Ireland.
On a wider point, there is still much uncertainty as we wait for the outcome of the latest round of negotiations between the Westminster Government and the EU. Much has been said in recent days as to what lies ahead in January. As a priority, the agri-food sector needs clarity about what is required for trade and the movement of goods in the future. The grace period is reasonable and pragmatic in order to allow the food industry to make further preparations. I note that pressure has been applied by our UK negotiators to have the grace period extended to all goods, which, in the circumstances, would be a further positive step.
At the AERA Committee a few weeks ago, I said that a grace period would be sensible, given that many preparations by industry are not at an advanced stage. The current grace period has been broadly welcomed by trade representatives, but it shows that there is still much preparation to be done across the industry in a very narrow time window. The additional time is useful. While there will be much more debate as we hurtle towards 1 January, and there is a mixture of views of how and why we have arrived at this point, I have always believed that there will be opportunities. I believe that it is vital that the House makes preparations to ensure that Northern Ireland maximises the opportunities that will be presented. I support the motion.
The SDLP agrees to the Alien and Locally Absent Species (Aquaculture) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020. The junior Minister outlined the importance of the regulations and the relevance of aquaculture legislation. The amendment regulations constitute more of the many legislative changes required by Brexit that the Assembly has had to scrutinise in a very short time. Indeed, to be frank, on some occasions, scrutiny has not been possible in a short time because the material has not been available. Information has not come from Westminster, so it has gone down to the wire on many things and is a bit lastminute.com. Indeed, when it went to a Division in Committee, I was in the Building using the WiFi, which went down at just that point, I do not know whether that was deliberate or some sort of alien infiltration.
The regulations will ensure that the legislation is compatible with the withdrawal agreement and the Ireland protocol, and will continue to operate effectively after the end of the transition period. Tightening the restrictions on the movement of locally absent species onto the island of Ireland from GB will help to protect aquaculture businesses and the environment, which is crucial.
On a wider note, the Justice Minister has approved widening the offence that relates to the amendment, and it will be up to the Department — indeed, it will be cross-departmental — to ensure that the necessary checks are in place and that the regulations are enforced after the transition period. The SDLP supports the SR.
At first glance, the legislation appears innocuous. However, from an Ulster Unionist perspective, it gives us some concerns. The statutory rule removes references to the United Kingdom and states:
"omit 'or to Northern Ireland from another part of the United Kingdom'" to reflect the fact that the United Kingdom is no longer a member of the EU. The problem is that the legislation separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. In the regulations and their outworkings, Northern Ireland will remain aligned with the European Union, so paperwork and permits will have to be completed for movement within the UK.
The UUP will look closely at all legislation that is being brought before the Assembly to determine whether it will have a negative or detrimental impact on the businesses, economy and environment of Northern Ireland. With the new regulations that amend the Alien and Locally Absent Species in Aquaculture Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012, provision is being made that it will be an offence to import from Scotland or elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Previously, if the Department decreed that a permit was not needed, there would be no offence. As the Assembly is fully aware, the current smooth and seamless links to the Scottish aquaculture sector are vital for our sector. The impact of that on our fish farms and other areas of aquaculture would be highly detrimental to our industry. Therefore, we will not support the legislation.
Thank you, Members. As it is nearly 1.56 pm and Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that Members take their ease for a moment. When we return to this debate, the first Member to speak will be Mr John Blair. Members, if you are leaving the Chamber, do not forget to clean your surfaces and what have you. Thank you.
The debate stood suspended.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)