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Import of agricultural goods

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:45 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 12:45 pm, 5th March 2020

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 27 February ahead of the start of negotiations with the EU, and on Monday this week for the US negotiations. Right hon. and hon. Members, and the general public, have a chance to scrutinise those documents and the Government will rightly be held to account. Once negotiations are under way, we will continue to keep the public and Parliament informed. We believe that that approach strikes the right balance of allowing Parliament and the public to scrutinise the trade policy, while maintaining the ability of Government to negotiate flexibly in the best interests of the UK.

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.