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Import of agricultural goods

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 12:30 pm, 5th March 2020

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.