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‘(1) Agricultural goods may be imported into the UK only if the standards to which those goods were produced were as high as, or higher than, standards which at the time of import applied under UK law relating to—
(a) animal welfare,
(b) protection of the environment, and
(c) food safety.
(2) “Agricultural goods”, for the purposes of this section, means—
(a) any livestock within the meaning of section 1(5),
(b) any plants or seeds, within the meaning of section 22(6),
(c) any product derived from livestock, plants or seeds.’—
This new clause would set a requirement for imported agricultural goods to meet animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards which are at least as high as those which apply to UK produced agricultural goods.
New clause 4—Import of agricultural goods after IP completion day—
‘(1) After IP completion day, agricultural goods imported under a free trade agreement may be imported into the UK only if the standards to which those goods were produced were as high as, or higher than, standards which at the time of import applied under UK law relating to—
(a) animal welfare,
(b) protection of the environment,
(c) food safety, hygiene and traceability, and
(d) plant health.
(2) The Secretary of State must prepare a register of UK production standards, to be updated annually, to which goods imported under subsection (1) would have to adhere.
(3) “Agricultural goods” for the purposes of this section, mean—
(a) any livestock within the meaning of section 1(5),
(b) any plants or seeds, within the meaning of section 22(6),
(c) any product derived from livestock, plants or seeds.
(4) “IP completion day” has the meaning given in section 39 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020.’
New clause 7—International trade agreements: agricultural and food products—
‘(1) A Minister of the Crown may not lay a copy of an international trade agreement before Parliament under section 20(1) of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 unless the agreement—
(a) includes an affirmation of the United Kingdom’s rights and obligations under the SPS Agreement, and
(b) prohibits the importation into the United Kingdom of agricultural and food products in relation to which the relevant standards are lower than the relevant standards in the United Kingdom.
(2) In subsection (1)—
“international trade agreement” means—
(a) an agreement that is or was notifiable under—
(b) an international agreement that mainly relates to trade, other than an agreement mentioned in sub-paragraph (i) or (ii);
“Minister of the Crown” has the same meaning as in the Ministers of the Crown Act 1975;
“relevant standards” means standards relating to environmental protection, plant health and animal welfare applying in connection with the production of agricultural and food products;
“SPS Agreement” means the agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, part of Annex 1A to the WTO Agreement (as modified from time to time);
“WTO Agreement” means the agreement establishing the World Trade Organisation signed at Marrakesh on
This new clause would ensure that HMG has a duty to protect the quality of the domestic food supply by ensuring that imported foodstuffs are held to the same standards as domestic foodstuffs are held to.
(iii) a Class IV prohibited substance listed in paragraph 4 of Schedule [Prohibited substances],
has been administered;
(c) which contains a substance specified by the Secretary of State in regulations under subsection (5)(a) at a concentration exceeding the maximum residue limit; or
(d) to which a medicinal product has been administered if the withdrawal period for that product has not expired.
(2) No person may sell or supply for human consumption any animal product which is derived wholly or partly from an animal the sale or supply of which is prohibited under subsection (1).
(3) Nothing in paragraph (1)(d) shall prohibit the sale before the end of the withdrawal period of any high-value horse to which has been administered allyl trenbolone or a beta-agonist in accordance with regulation 5 of the Animals and Animal Products (Examination for Residues and Maximum Residue Limits)(England and Scotland) Regulations 2015, provided that the type and date of treatment was entered on the horse’s passport by the veterinary surgeon directly responsible for the treatment.
(4) The prohibitions in paragraphs (1) and (2) shall not apply to the sale of an animal, or of an animal product derived wholly or partly from an animal to which has been administered a compliant veterinary medicinal product—
(a) containing testosterone, progesterone or a derivative of these substances which readily yields the parent compound on hydrolysis after absorption at the site of application, if the administration is in accordance with regulation 26 of the Animals and Animal Products (Examination for Residues and Maximum Residue Limits) (England and Scotland) Regulations 2015;
(b) containing allyl trenbolone or a beta-agonist, if the administration is in accordance with regulation 27 of the Animals and Animal Products (Examination for Residues and Maximum Residue Limits) (England and Scotland) Regulations 2015;
(c) having oestrogenic action (but not containing oestradiol 17β or its ester-like derivatives), androgenic action or gestagenic action, if the administration is in accordance with regulation 28 of the Animals and Animal Products (Examination for Residues and Maximum Residue Limits) (England and Scotland) Regulations 2015.
(5) The Secretary of State may make regulations—
(a) specifying for the purposes of subsection (1)(c) maximum residue limits for pharmacologically active substances, and
(b) adding one or more substances to any of the classes of prohibited substances in Schedule [Prohibited substances].
(6) Regulations under subsection (5) shall be made by statutory instrument, and any such statutory instrument may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.
(7) For the purposes of this section—
a veterinary medicinal product is a compliant veterinary medicinal product if it complies with the requirements of Regulation 25 of the Animals and Animal Products (Examination for Residues and Maximum Residue Limits) (England and Scotland) Regulations 2015), and
“withdrawal period” shall have the meaning given in Regulation 2 of the Animals and Animal Products (Examination for Residues and Maximum Residue Limits) (England and Scotland) Regulations 2015).
(8) Regulations 9 and 10 of the Animals and Animal Products (Examination for Residues and Maximum Residue Limits) (England and Scotland) Regulations 2015 are revoked.’
New clause 31—Prohibition on sale: hygiene—
‘(1) No person shall sell or supply any animal which has been treated for the purposes of removal of surface contamination with a substance other than potable water.
(2) No person shall sell or supply any animal product which is derived wholly or partly from an animal which has been treated for the purposes of removal of surface contamination with a substance other than potable water.’
New clause 32—Prohibition on sale: stocking densities—
‘(1) No person shall sell or supply any chicken, any part of a chicken or any product which is partly or wholly derived from a chicken unless the condition in subsection (2) is met.
(2) The condition is that the stocking density in any house in which the chicken was reared—
(a) did not exceed 33 kilograms per m
(b) did not exceed 39 kilograms per m
(3) The requirements of this subsection are that the keeper must—
(a) maintain and, on request, make available to the Secretary of State, documentation in the house giving a detailed description of the production systems, in particular information on technical details of the house and its equipment, including—
(i) a plan of the house including the dimensions of the surfaces occupied by the chickens;
(ii) ventilation and any relevant cooling and heating system (including their location), and a ventilation plan, detailing target air quality parameters (such as airflow, air speed and temperature);
(iii) feeding and watering systems (and their location);
(iv) alarm and backup systems in the event of a failure of any equipment essential for the health and well-being of the chickens;
(v) floor type and litter normally used; and
(vi) records of technical inspections of the ventilation and alarm systems;
(b) keep up to date the documentation referred to in subparagraph (a);
(c) ensure that each house is equipped with ventilation and, if necessary, heating and cooling systems designed, constructed and operated in such a way that—
(i) the concentration of ammonia does not exceed 20 parts per million and the concentration of carbon dioxide does not exceed 3,000 parts per million, when measured at the level of the chickens’ heads;
(ii) when the outside temperature measured in the shade exceeds 30°C, the inside temperature does not exceed the outside temperature by more than 3°C; and
(iii) when the outside temperature is below 10°C, the average relative humidity measured inside the house during a continuous period of 48 hours does not exceed 70%.
(4) In the case of a chicken reared in a house which is not in the United Kingdom, it shall be a requirement upon the importer to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Secretary of State that—
(a) documentation equivalent to that specified in subsection (3) was maintained by the keeper and was available for supply to the appropriate regulatory authority, and
(b) the conditions under which the chicken was reared were equivalent to, or better than, those set out in subsections (2) and (3).
(5) For the purposes of this section, “chicken” shall mean a conventionally reared meat chicken.’
It is a pleasure to continue serving under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am afraid that we will not be rattling on at quite the pace you have managed so far.
Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will be delighted that today we are going to unleash, as the Prime Minister would say, the full talents of the shadow Front-Bench team and Labour Back-Bench Members. Again, I encourage the Government to do the same. Yesterday morning, while eating my porridge, I enjoyed a thoughtful contribution on the “Today” programme—territory currently uninhabited by Ministers of course—from the hon. Member for Devizes. It is an odd world where Back-Bench Members are free to speak on national media but are constrained on detailed scrutiny. The Government love power but may be less keen on responsibility.
A document relevant to our discussion has once again been released in the middle of a morning. This time, it is a 109-page document on bovine TB. Although it is another favourite document of mine, hon. Members will be grateful that I will not subject it to rigorous scrutiny, but one of my hon. Friends will talk to it this afternoon.
Let me get to the core business. Throughout the Committee, we have said that it is crucial that, in any future trade deals, imported agricultural goods meet our animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards to protect our consumers and prevent our farmers being undercut by lower-standard imports. The Bill improves the standards that we set ourselves by reducing environmental impacts and incentivising public goods, such as high welfare standards. If we do not have coherency between our agricultural and trade policies, however, the Government might as well make the entire Bill null and void.
Hon. Members will have noticed in the oral evidence sessions that I asked almost every witness the same question. Although they put it in different ways, they all gave similar answers and agreed that it is the key issue. The Government have said that they are committed not to allow future trade deals to weaken our food standards—I anticipate the Minister’s response—but the problem is that we have yet to find anyone who believes that. I suspect the same goes for most Government Members. There is a simple solution, which we will say again and again: put it in the Bill. I am tempted to follow the Prime Minister’s lead and get Opposition Members to chant, but I think that is a bit naff, so we will not do that. We will try to do better.
We are sceptical because the actions of the Government and the Prime Minister seem to point in a different direction. On Sunday, the Secretary of State had the opportunity, but again refused to rule out chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef being imported from the US under a new deal.
Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that we have put it into law that we cannot import chlorinated chicken? We would require primary legislation for that to be removed once we have left the EU, so it is not up for discussion. It is in the legislation. All hon. Members will have a chance to vote on that.
The hon. Gentleman says that the Government are giving all the signs of having no interest in protecting standards, but did he not note Liz Truss’ announcement of our red lines, which are standards? That has reassured my farmers locally, who are very happy for all amendments on trade standards to go into a trade Bill, not the Agriculture Bill.
I am delighted that we are getting some rumbustious debate. I will come to the point later of the exact legal position on the current status, which I suspect is not nearly so clear. I am not convinced that many are as reassured by the Secretary of State for International Trade’s document, which I have started reading, as the hon. Lady has, but I am glad that some of her constituents are satisfied, because many are not.
We know that the Prime Minister will not prioritise alignment with EU standards in the upcoming EU trade deal. When asked last month about lower-standard American products coming to the UK, he described such fears as “hysterical” and “mumbo-jumbo”. Given his past record, as I take that as, “Yes, we should be very worried indeed.”
If the Minister is in any doubt about the need to include a safeguard for our production standards in the Bill, I point to the comments made by a Government adviser on food strategy at the weekend, which reveal that the iconoclasts running the show have little regard for protecting our farmers and the domestic production of food. The Mail on Sunday article was a classic of its type, including comments such as
“Britain doesn’t need famers,”
according to the adviser, and
“the food sector is not ‘critically important’ to the economy.”
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that that email was sent in a personal capacity by an adviser? It is MPs and Ministers who make legislation, not advisers—I am pretty sure about that. [Interruption.] I do not know who that individual adviser is, so clearly he is not advising my views. The Secretary of State for International Trade, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Prime Minister have all made it clear that the points the adviser makes are not Government policy. We can either listen to nonsensical personal emails or pay attention to what those on the Front Bench are saying. I think they have been clear that the Mail on Sunday story was complete nonsense. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I have to say that I do not normally find myself in agreement with the Daily Mail, but on this occasion there may be something in it. The important point is that there are clearly people close to Government who have dramatic views that seem different to those of the vast majority of Conservative Members, as well as Labour Members. It is a question for the Government to decide who they choose to seek advice from, but it can hardly be denied that it is out there.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that in an earlier evidence session George Monbiot advocated for precisely those points, and argued for desisting in the production of sheep and cattle on the uplands and planting them with trees? Does he subscribe to that view, as espoused by The Guardian?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but there is a subtle difference between witness evidence and the evidence that has been given in the important Dimbleby review on our future food policy. I think there is a difference, but, as always, I respect his observation.
Moving on from jousting about newspapers, it is important that to have a discussion about levels of food security, as I have mentioned. It is an intellectually plausible position to say that we do not have to produce our own food and that we could become like Singapore. That is an important political debate that should be had transparently, not in private emails between advisers. Without proper legal protection in place, many people will feel that whatever the Government say will just be warm words.
“Our high environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards are already in law, including legislating to prevent the importation of chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef”.—[Official Report,
We were interested by that statement. Can the Minister clarify further the statement that they are “already in law” by providing the details of the legislation where those standards can be found? Can she explain what mechanism would be used if the Government are required in a trade negotiation to amend or remove any of the standards and describe, in that scenario, the level of parliamentary scrutiny that would apply?
That should be good ground for the Minister as she is an esteemed lawyer. I am neither esteemed nor a lawyer, so I was grateful that, after the exchange at DEFRA questions, the shadow Secretary of State sought advice. We have advice from the House of Commons Library and—guess what?—it is complicated. Inevitably, trying to unravel the complexity of bringing EU law into domestic law and the overlaps is difficult. I suspect the law would need to be tested and, as ever, different lawyers would give different advice; that tends to happen. Some think that EU-derived domestic legislation covering these matters could, in some circumstances, be changed by the Government using delegated powers in the Food Safety Act 1990, without the need even to seek parliamentary approval, let alone primary legislation.
We are questioning the Government on this. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State queried it with the previous Secretary of State, and we await a response with interest, because it is an important point. However, the seeming lack of clarity hardly fills us with confidence, because this is such an issue. Clearly, in the interests of certainty and clarity—which, in fairness, we can agree we do not have—we should put this in the Bill. We should agree an amendment to create a proper legislative guarantee that future trade deals will not allow imports of agricultural goods used to lower environmental, public health, and animal welfare standards. This is that amendment.
Farming and environmental groups are, as far as I can see, pretty unanimous in their agreement that we need that guarantee. We have heard reference in the evidence sessions and in some previous discussions to the 60-plus farming, environmental, animal welfare and food industry organisations that have all written to the Prime Minister, calling for that safeguard. As I am sure we are all aware, in a couple of weeks we expect many farmers to be lobbying Parliament on just that issue.
Interestingly, that is a consensus not just across organisations, but across the party divide in the Chamber. The words of the new clause are not ours, not Labour’s words, but the exact same words tabled in the amendment of the Minister’s colleague, Neil Parish, the esteemed Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I suspect the words of one of the senior members of a previous Committee at the end of Second Reading are still ringing out—he certainly expected to see improvements, and if we cannot deliver those today, they will certainly be introduced on Report.
To add to the evidence, the cross-party EFRA Committee clearly concluded in its scrutiny report of the earlier Agriculture Bill in 2018 that, in its collective opinion:
“The Government should put its money where its mouth is and accept an amendment to the Agriculture Bill stipulating that food products imported as part of any future trade deal should meet or exceed British standards”.
This is that amendment.
The direction could not be clearer. I ask the Minister to take a long think. Are the concerns of that wide range of organisations, almost every witness seen by this Bill Committee and the Government’s own Back Benchers really as hysterical as the Prime Minister seems to think? Or could it be that there is actually a serious issue?
What would be the point of the Bill if all its good work in encouraging farmers to adopt higher environmental and animal welfare standards is undermined on day one by imports with lower standards flooding in and undercutting them? If farmers have to face that competition from cheaper food produced to lower standards than those they will rightly be expected to work to in the environmental land management schemes, the real danger is that they will be forced to walk away from delivering those public goods entirely. That has a further consequence. The danger is that all the environmental improvements we are hoping for from the Bill would be undermined. In fact, our environmental standards could fall. That danger was raised repeatedly by the witnesses the Committee heard from.
The Government have already rejected our amendment calling for proper baseline environmental and welfare standards, so the reality we will be faced with, if they do not respond positively to our new clause, is that the new green world of farming that we had hoped for will be one where the environmental public goods are not delivered, where our farmers are forced to produce food at lower animal welfare and environmental standards, and where we will have imports of chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef on our supermarket shelves, which we do not wish to see.
It is, because it was made clear that there would be a clear response. I suspect that the issue is complicated and people are working on it, but I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s concern. This is something we need clarity on.
I absolutely understand and sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s objectives. His new clause talks about “agricultural goods”, which presumably includes animal feed. It is pretty much accepted that environmental standards in Brazil, Argentina, the United States and Canada are lower than ours. Would the new clause ban the importation of all agricultural feed, including soya beans and maize, into the United Kingdom, should the exporting country’s environmental standards not be as high as ours, given that those products are mixed, so it could not be done on an individual farm basis?
I fully accept that the provision would need to be thought through and worked through in future. My point is that in general we must be careful about such changes, because I do not want our agriculture sector to be put at a disadvantage.
We do not want what I have just been outlining to happen. I suspect that the Minister and the vast majority of her colleagues do not want it to happen either. I mentioned the chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef, and it is worth spending a moment to remind ourselves of the exact nature of the kinds of low-standard food imports that we need to guard against.
When it comes to a trade deal with the US, we know that by and large its regulations on farm animal welfare are substantially lower than those of the UK. My understanding is that the US has no federal regulations at all in many of the areas in which the UK has enacted detailed regulations. The RSPCA raised, in evidence, the fact that 55% of the pork meat and bacon that we eat is imported. Virtually all of it comes from the EU, which follows comparatively high standards of production.
If we start going to the US, where they still use sow stalls and inject pigs with ractopamine, both of which are rightly illegal in UK pig farming on animal welfare grounds, we completely undermine our moral commitments against those practices, and allow undercutting of our farmers, who are committed to such higher standards. I remind members of the Committee that ractopamine is a feed additive used to manipulate growth in pigs, which has been shown to be highly detrimental to pig welfare, causing lameness, stiffness, trembling and shortness of breath. There is a reason we do not use it. It is the same for hormone-treated beef, which is produced in the US by injecting cattle with growth hormones to generate greater mass more quickly. That is banned in the EU on animal welfare and public health grounds.
The issue with the chlorinated chicken produced in the US is that the chickens have been kept in such dismal and intensive conditions that the chlorine is required to wash off the pathogens that they have become infected with during rearing and slaughter. The principle is animal welfare, but there is also a real question over food safety. Of course, we heard evidence on that. It is fair to say that there is dispute about the comparative rates of food-borne illnesses in the US and the UK but, as we heard from Professor Keevil of the University of Southampton, there are now studies that suggest that chlorine washing is not as effective as was once thought, and can make pathogens undetectable without actually killing them, so that they may remain capable of causing disease.
I feel strongly that those are not products that we want on our shelves or in our freezer cabinets. I will echo the words of the president of the National Farmers Union, who last week delivered this statement to a clearly discomfited Secretary of State:
“To sign up to a trade deal which results in opening our ports, shelves and fridges to food which would be illegal to produce here would not only be morally bankrupt, it would be the work of the insane.”
I might not have used exactly the same words, but I agree with the sentiment, and I think that the Secretary of State was discomfited because he knows that she is right.
It is crystal clear that we need a safeguard. How on earth do the Government expect to negotiate their way out of this, when the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has clearly said that chlorinated chicken must be part of any UK-US trade agreement? Why not come clean and admit that in the negotiations there will be trade-offs, one of which, sadly, could be selling out our farmers and our environment?
New clauses 30 to 32 are particularly interesting, and members of the Committee who have read them will note that they are detailed. They may think, “Gosh, what a clever bunch they are on the Labour side.” They may not—but it is actually better than that. Let me explain where the new clauses came from. I suspect that some Members already know, and I hope that the Minister was warned when she took the job. The new clauses—the exact words—were tabled to the previous Bill by none other than the current Secretary of State, George Eustice. That Bill never reached Report and there was no opportunity to debate the new clauses. I am grateful to eagle-eyed experts from an organisation that shall remain nameless—they know who they are—for drawing them to our attention.
We judge that it would be of use to the Committee to consider the new clauses. They are deeply probing and have an illustrious pedigree, because they first saw the light of day during the brief, tricky period when the current Secretary of State was on the Back Benches, having resigned his post over a difference of opinion with the then Prime Minister about our relationship with the European Union. To some extent, we are slightly puzzled that those amendments have not been re-tabled by the Government for this version of the Bill. It would be useful to hear the Minister explain why the Government apparently now feel that these worthy proposals, tabled then, are not worth revisiting now. I will choose my words carefully, because the Secretary of State is clearly not part of the Committee. I ask the Minister, why does she not agree with the proposals? Perhaps she does.
We were particularly struck by what these new clauses seemed to be looking to achieve. Members of the Committee will agree that they deal with complex and technical matters on which a degree of expertise is needed in matters of animal health and veterinary pharmaceutical practice. Our understanding is that the aim here was to place in primary legislation many of the protections and safeguards on food safety and animal welfare that already currently exist in secondary legislation, both retained EU and domestic. The force of the proposals would be to ban the sale of animals or products from animals that have been treated with a range of compounds whose use is currently illegal in this country, except in restricted circumstances where they are being used under veterinary supervision for veterinary therapeutic purposes, and only then if residues are acceptably low.
It is truly a fascinating read to see what these compounds include. Schedule 1 lists testosterone, progesterone, oestradiol 17β, stilbenes and trenbolone, which are all hormones permitted as growth promoters in US beef production. The beta-agonists listed are used as growth promoters, more commonly in pig production, and I believe that ractopamine, which I mentioned earlier, would be classified under that category.
Most interestingly, new clause 31 would prohibit the sale, for hygiene reasons, of any animal product that comes from animals being treated with any substance other than potable water for the purpose of removing surface contamination. By my understanding, that would essentially preclude the sale of chlorine or oplactose-acid washed chicken in this country.
New clause 31 does not actually refer to post-slaughter use and, as it is sloppily drafted, would apply to the washing of show animals at shows, the use of saline solution for washing eyes or, indeed, the use of diluted sheep dip after docking of sheep. Does the hon. Member recognise that the new clause needs tightening up? It refers to an animal during its entire lifecycle.
As ever, I am hugely grateful to the right hon. Member, whose drafting skills I would happily draw on in trying to improve the amendments. He will reflect that the new clause was sloppily drafted not by Opposition Members, but by the current Secretary of State. We are very happy to work with the right hon. Member on improving it, but I think he knows what was being referred to in those circumstances.
It seems to us that the Government are currently refusing to include in the Bill a ban on food imports produced to lower standards than our own. They have also dodged amendments to the Bill that were suggested previously by the current Secretary of State himself, which seemed to aim to ensure the exact same thing—banning the sale of animal products in this country that had been subjected to chemicals and processes that we do currently allow here.
What exactly has been going on? The Minister needs to come clean on this. The Secretary of State did not include these prohibitions either in the previous Bill or in the current Bill, even though he was the Minister in charge of both Bills. What came over him when he briefly left the Government? What conditions was he made to accept when he agreed to come back and then to become Secretary of State? Does this whole episode not show that, in his heart of hearts, he probably agrees with us that the only way to safeguard our animal welfare and food safety standards and to prevent our hard-pressed British farmers from being undercut by cheap, sub-standard imports, is to put these provisions in the Bill?
We believe that new clause 1 is the crucial amendment. It would not just strengthen the Bill but safeguard its core aims. We make no apology whatever about pressing it to a vote. I urge the Minister to listen closely to the unanimity of voices on this amendment and to recognise the need for this addition to the Bill. I appreciate that this is a tough moment for Government Members. As they vote, they must be aware that the future of many of their constituents is on the line. I want to safeguard their future, our countryside and our food safety.
I rise to support everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge has said on new clause 1. I shall also speak to new clause 4, which was tabled by Simon Hoare, with the support of many of his Conservative colleagues. At the moment, I am the only Labour Member whose name has been added to it, but I am sure that many others would join me on Report.
Some of us sat on the Committee that considered the first draft of the Agriculture Bill in the last Parliament. I was also on the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, as well as part of as various all-party parliamentary groups, and there were also debates on these matters in the Chamber and at oral questions. Ministers, including the then Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Farming Minister and, at various points, the International Trade Secretary, gave us verbal reassurances.
There was a bit of a trajectory, because in the early days, we could get Ministers to say only that UK standards would be protected. Eventually, after lots of prompting on our part, some of them—although certainly not on the International Trade side—said that that also applied to imported goods. The Minister needs to reflect on why it is very clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge said, that those assurances are not believed. The absolute fact of the situation is that everyone, from the NFU to environmental and consumer groups, wants those things enshrined in law, as do the Conservative Members who have signed the new clause.
The Minister has talked about including those assurances in a trade Bill, but when the Trade Bill was introduced to Parliament, we were fobbed off. We tried to get something in there, but were told that it applied only to current trade agreements and not to future ones, although some legal opinion said that it did. When we tried to discuss that during the passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and all the discussions about Brexit, we were told that it would pop up somewhere else. That game of musical chairs just does not wash with people. We want to see this measure in the Agriculture Bill because it specifically relates to food standards and animal welfare, as we have heard in detail.
I remember trying to bring the matter up during arguments about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, way before Brexit. The then Member for Streatham, who was our shadow Business Secretary, made great play about the NHS being at risk under TTIP. When I started trying to talk to him about chickens, he looked at me as if to say, “What on earth is she on about now?” Now, the chickens have come home to roost—metaphorical chickens—and everyone knows about the issue, but nobody is convinced that the Government are willing to support preventive measures.
We spoke earlier about articles in the Daily Mail and The Guardian. I will quote a Guardian article from
“Agriculture in the US remains quite backward in many respects. It retains a position of resisting more information on labels to limit consumer knowledge and engagement.”
The vested interests involved in the US food sector are absolutely immense, with huge lobbying efforts and huge amounts of disinformation and press work. The article continues:
“Its livestock sectors often suffer from poor husbandry, which leads to more prevalence of disease and a greater reliance on antibiotics”,
which we know is an issue.
“Whereas we have a ‘farm to fork’ approach to managing disease and contamination risk throughout the supply chain through good husbandry, the US is more inclined to simply treat contamination of its meat at the end with a chlorine or similar wash.”
The article continues:
“In the US, legislation on animal welfare is woefully deficient.”
Does the hon. Lady understand that the US actually consumes most of its own beef? Only about 13.5% of its beef is exported, mainly to Japan and the far east. There is not a great stockpile of American beef looking for a market, either in the UK or the EU.
I am not sure that that is particularly relevant. At the moment there is a ban on hormone-pumped beef entering our markets. The UK is the third biggest market in the world for food imports. It is clear that if the doors were open, there would be a potential market here and the US would be very keen to get into it. Most of the discussion on trade deals so far has not been about the beef sector anyway.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge has already said, at about the time that the now Secretary of State wrote that article, he also tabled what are now new clauses 33, 34 and 35 to the then Agriculture Bill. Why would he do that? He had made the arguments in public. He did a sterling job trying to defend the Government’s position during the first sitting of the Agriculture Bill. He came across as reasonably sincere, but the moment he had the freedom to say what he really thought, he went to the press and wrote an article in The Guardian outlining clearly and eloquently what his concerns were. He did not seek verbal reassurances from the Government; he sought legislative reassurances. So if it is good enough for the Secretary of State when he is allowed free rein to say what he feels, I am sure the Minister can understand why many of her colleagues on the Conservative Back Benches and Opposition Members also agree with him.
I agree with much of what the previous speakers have said. New clauses 1 and 4 are grand in their way and I will support them, but we have to go further. I want to see the standards of the EU maintained, but perhaps that is for a different debate. However, it is possible to write it into domestic law that imports have to match the sanitary and phytosanitary standards of the WTO.
The WTO agreement on the application of sanitary and phytosanitary measures is clear that science has to underpin the standards to protect human, animal or plant health. The agreement allows states to protect their food supplies and the imports of supporting products to the benefit of citizens. I know the argument will be that Ministers seek to protect citizens, but we do not know that that will always be the case. We should seek to ensure that citizens have the confidence to believe in this measure and in future Governments, and in the commitment to protecting foods and health. Citizens should also have the right to understand how Governments intend to do that and should have the ability to challenge them if necessary.
The SPS agreement allows standards to be set, so we should have them set. That would have allowed Ministers to assure the public that animal welfare and plant health would be maintained, and that imported food would be of a standard that we could rely on for health and the protection of life. As NFU Scotland recently pointed out, assurances around priorities in negotiations work only if the US upholds its side of the bargain. It stated:
“After all, there’s no point having a level playing field if the two sides are playing to different rules.”
I therefore support new clause 7.
I will make a few brief remarks on behalf of the shadow European affairs team. As we leave the European Union, we want to make sure we do not lose anything in terms of our high standards and that we try to spot the places where there is potential for loopholes, which I hope none of us wants.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East admirably made the case that the Secretary of State’s real views are in alignment with ours. We therefore present the Government with an opportunity to vote for the Secretary of State’s actual views. We in the European affairs team feel we are here to make sure that the transference of Europe-wide rules to UK standards is not undermined by trade agreements with other parts of the world. We simply want to safeguard that. So, on behalf of the shadow European affairs team, I want to add my support to the case made by Opposition Front and Back Benchers, which, after all, reflects the Secretary of State’s views.
I thank hon. Members for tabling these new clauses. I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to talk once again about the importance of food standards. The hon. Member for Bristol East will never find me sneering at or questioning the importance of food standards. This is an important debate, and it is right that we have it here, and while considering other Bills, as we move to a new world where we have left the EU and hopefully have free trade agreements with many other countries.
I welcome the opportunity to reiterate the Government’s commitment to not lowering our standards as we negotiate new trade deals. The Prime Minister has consistently stated that we will not compromise our high environmental, food safety or animal welfare standards now that we have left the EU. We made that commitment in our manifesto, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade reaffirmed that commitment to the House earlier this week in respect of a US trade deal.
I will set out the Government’s position on that. The hon. Member for Cambridge was kind enough to say that I was an esteemed lawyer. I do not know whether that is true, but I am certainly a very experienced Government lawyer, and I gently say that the purpose of primary legislation is not about making people happy, although the purpose of the policy behind it might well be that. We come at this from the same place: we all like high standards in British agriculture and want to support our farmers. However, I will set out why the Government have come to this conclusion, which will take some time, I am afraid, and I will deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Bristol East.
To deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Bristol West, 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.
The hon. Member for Cambridge said I was an esteemed lawyer—who knows?—and also that he was waiting for a letter from the Department. I am certainly an experienced enough lawyer not to wish to interfere in that process. If a letter is being drafted, I will make sure to look at it. However, he asked specifically about hormone-treated beef and washed chicken. I will give him the directives and the way they are transposed into British law as I see it. The top line is that all EU law on food safety standards was carried over by the 2018 Act.
EU Council directive 96/22/EC, as amended, which bans the import and production of hormone-treated beef, was transposed into UK law through national legislation. It is found in various regulations, including the Animals and Animal Products (Examination for Residues and Maximum Residue Limits) (England and Scotland) Regulations 2015; Animals and Animal Products (Examination for Residues and Maximum Residue Limits) (Wales) Regulations 2019; and the Animals and Animal Products (Examination for Residues and Maximum Residue Limits) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016. I will write to the hon. Gentleman on that, because I do not expect him to take a note of all those, or the Secretary of State will write to the shadow Secretary of State. I do not want to interfere in that letter-writing process.
On the washing of poultry, European Union controls on the surface decontamination of poultry—regulation 853 /2004—will be retained through the 2018 Act, and have been made ready to be carried over into UK law immediately after the transition period through the Specific Food Hygiene (Regulation (EC) No. 853/2004) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which will maintain the status quo that no product other than drinking water is currently approved in the EU to decontaminate poultry carcases. That will remain the same in the UK. I will write to the hon. Gentleman properly about that, so that he has the details. It is complicated, as he says.
The regulations I have mentioned include artificial growth hormones for domestic production and imported products, and we would require legislation to change those regulations. Both hormone-treated beef and washing of poultry are covered. The Government have said that any future deals must respect our regulatory autonomy, which means that we will not sign agreements that threaten our ability to set our own high standards, of which we are proud. Our standards are driven by consumer and retailer demand and frequently go above current regulatory standards; most of us would welcome that. The Agriculture Bill will help to ensure that we continue to maintain those high standards in line with the needs of our farmers, retailers and consumers.
The Government take the view that banning imports unless all domestic standards are met is not always appropriate. For animal welfare, some domestic legal requirements can be assessed and enforced as part of inspections considering the holistic welfare of animals on farms, but those standards will be unsuitable metrics for decisions on individual imports. Indeed, we would have no way to enforce such restrictions or to check on the position of farms abroad.
Accepting new clause 1 would create considerable uncertainty about whether current imports—on which we rely for food security, particularly at times of worry—including those from the EU, could continue. Our significant concern is that the new clause would put current trade agreements at risk and threaten our vital agri-food export trade. For example, 23% of our whisky exports are covered under current trade agreements that we are seeking to transition at the end of this year, and we would not want to put those at risk. The UK already ensures that, without exception, all imports of food meet the stringent food safety standards that are required of our domestic producers. The independent Food Standards Agency will continue to ensure that that remains the case.
The World Trade Organisation allows for trade restrictions in very specific circumstances, such as for food safety or to protect public morals. It is not clear to the Government that the requirements of new clause 1 would meet the WTO criteria, and we are concerned that we would risk significant challenge from it. That is what I was trying to say, in a slightly flippant way, to the hon. Member for Bristol West earlier about having our cake and eating it. As she said, we are signed up to the WTO; as such, we must abide by its rules. We are concerned that the new clause would affect the trade of the more than 160 WTO members. It could draw a challenge from any of them, if they believed our import measures were arbitrary, discriminatory or a disguised form of protectionism.
I feel that the hon. Lady was partly making my point: we have to stick to WTO rules. I think she and I agree that we want to comply with WTO rules. As a lawyer with many years’ experience, I am explaining my concern that the new clause would possibly not comply with WTO rules—I put it no more strongly than that.
Prior to the start of negotiations for each new free trade agreement, the Government will publish—indeed, we have done so this week—our approach to negotiations, including our negotiating objectives and other explanatory material. We did so on
I turn to new clause 30 and new schedule 1. As several hon. Members have said, the provisions were tabled when the previous Agriculture Bill was before the House during the last Session. The hon. Member for Cambridge will recognise that domestic legislation already provides for a prohibition on the use of substances listed in new clause 30, and for maximum residue limits for substances to be specified. My response to the comments about the new clauses that were tabled by the current Secretary of State is this: are we not fortunate to have a Secretary of State who is a champion of standards in our food and agricultural sector? Quite frankly, to turn around the words of the hon. Member for Bristol East, the Secretary of State wholly supports the Agriculture Bill as drafted. He has been reassured that this is not needed in primary legislation, and if it is good enough for the Secretary of State, it is good enough for me.
To go into detail, as the hon. Member for Cambridge did, new clause 30 does not refer to the operability amendments and other provisions in the exit legislation made last year—obviously, because it was drafted before that. That legislation deliberately took a flexible approach to the specification of maximum residue limits, rather than the more onerous scrutiny that the new clause would lead to. The legislation will come into force at the end of the transition period. Setting a maximum residue limit for a particular substance does not overturn the legislative prohibition on the use of substances as growth promoters.
Parliamentary scrutiny is, of course, important. But, as was explained in debates on the exit statutory instruments last year, a non-legislative approach when setting maximum residue limits is more efficient and likely to avoid unnecessary delays, which might have financial implications for industry and make the UK less attractive to pharmaceutical companies looking to market veterinary medicines. If that were to lead to a reduction in available medication, it could have a significant impact on animal welfare. As such, although we recognise that there are arguments for increasing the level of parliamentary scrutiny, the Government prefer to maintain the approach set out in our exit legislation—of course, it was not around when the amendment was drafted—that was considered and approved by Parliament at the end of last year.
Turning to new clause 31, I hope the hon. Member for Cambridge can agree that there are instances in which substances other than drinking water are already deemed appropriate for the specified purposes, having been subject to rigorous risk analysis processes. In fact, the EU has approved lactic acid for treating beef carcases, recycled hot water for carcases of certain species and clean water—not drinking water—for fishery products. I hope we can agree that it would be regressive to undo what are already considered safe practices. The unfortunate effect of the new clause would be to stymie any process for considering new substances for use in the UK in future. It could restrict the potential for innovation to realise new hygiene benefits.
The wording of new clause 31, whether intended or not, goes much further than existing restrictions—I do not want to talk about sloppy drafting, but I am concerned that such a provision could result in serious animal health and welfare implications. Live animals could no longer be effectively washed or treated with antiparasitic treatment, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby said, such as sheep dips. Udder washing is a perfectly normal practice to stop mastitis, and we would not want to interfere with that. Maintaining safety and public confidence in the food we eat remains a high priority for the Government, and the current regulatory framework ensures that.
New clause 32 would prevent meat and other products from conventionally reared meat chickens from being sold or supplied in the UK unless they are produced to a stocking density no greater than 39 kg per square metre, which is our current maximum in Great Britain. Northern Ireland has set a maximum stocking density of 42 kg per square metre. As such, the new clause would mean that meat chicken legally produced in Northern Ireland over 39 kg per square metre could not be sold in the UK. I am sure that was not the intention when the new clause was drafted.
Further, although we have a strong domestic sector producing around £2.4 billion of poultry meat per year, in 2018 we imported £2.1 billion of chicken meat and chicken products. Some of those, including imports from some EU member states, do not meet our stocking density requirements. Imposing a restriction of this kind on imports might result in food security issues, and it would certainly impact cost. We all want to move in the same direction on animal welfare, but we may not be able to do so by means of new clause 32.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to restate the Government’s commitment to standards and to highlight Parliament’s role in scrutinising our negotiation approach to free trade agreements. However, as I mentioned, we have retained EU legislation for existing protections on food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards, and I therefore the Opposition to withdraw the new clause.
I have listened very closely to the Minister addressing a range of complicated issues. In responding, I will work backwards.
We fully accept that drafting the detail in these proposals was a complicated process, and we pay tribute to the current Secretary of State for the work he did in attempting to deal with this conundrum. I have to say that I think the Bill—this is the part the Minister was not really able to address—in effect takes apart what the Secretary of State was trying to do, which we think was really important. I invite the Minister to reflect on whether it would be possible to work cross-party before we get to the next stage of the process to amend some of the detail. That would seem to me to be a good way forward, and it would reflect what I suspect we can probably all agree on. Knocking this down on the basis that there are problematic points of detail—I do not dispute that it is complicated and difficult—is not the right way to go.
That leads us to the Minister’s point about our relationships in the WTO. We know that the WTO is a troubled organisation at the moment, but we also know that there is plenty of opportunity all the time for people to challenge. The question is why they do it at some times and not others. That goes back to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West.
There is a political set of questions about how trading blocs deal with disputes. The sad truth is that we are now outside one of the big trading blocs and we do not have the power of an umbrella that would probably prevent others from making challenges that we might not think reasonable. We have seen that in the new world order, with Trump and so on, quite spurious challenges may be made that generate a whole raft of legal procedures, which take time and are difficult to deal with. A small player is much more vulnerable than a big player to being picked off, because big players have more resources in their armoury to fight back with.
I am afraid that is the difficult situation that the Government have got us into. On the WTO rules, I recognise that there is some potential for challenge, but that is where we are at. We must ensure that we do everything we can to protect our people in this new world. The clearest and most helpful way of doing that in negotiations would be to put what we have proposed in the Bill; if we did so, the others in the negotiations would know it was non-negotiable.
That goes back to the basic point that the Minister made at the beginning of her speech. I am afraid the harsh truth is that when the Prime Minister makes a series of promises, they are not believed. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East made some excellent points: for all the reasons we have heard about today, including the piece that the current Secretary of State wrote all those months ago, how can we believe the Prime Minister when—