Clause 43 - Regulations

Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 7th July 2022.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 2:30 pm, 7th July 2022

I beg to move amendment 26, in clause 43, page 28, line 6, at end insert—

“(7) Regulations under this Act must be made in accordance with—

(a) the environmental principles set out in section 17(5) of the Environment Act 2021, and

(b) Article 391 (Non-regression from levels of protection) of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, of the one part, and the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community, of the other part, done at Brussels and London on 30 December 2020.”

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 27, in clause 43, page 28, line 6, at end insert—

“(7) No regulations may be made under this Act unless—

(a) a policy statement on environmental principles has been laid before Parliament under section 18(6) of the Environment Act 2021, and

(b) section 19 of the Environment Act 2021 is in force.”

This amendment would prevent the exercise of any powers granted by the Bill until the Government’s policy statement on environmental principles has been finalised and Ministers are under a statutory duty to have due regard to it.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Some Members may have found the previous conversations slightly dry.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

However, now we are getting to some really interesting points. We have tabled two amendments that would insert additional subsections into clause 43 with regard to the environmental principles of the Environment Act 2021 and the non-regression principle laid out in the 2020 trade and co-operation agreement between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the European Union. Veterans of the Environment Act proceedings will recall extensive discussion of those issues, and I suspect that one or two Government Members will rise to the defence of the trade and co-operation agreement, particularly the non-regression clauses.

This is quite technical, but it is important because it is about upholding the standards that we have committed to in both domestic legislation and international agreements. It is about upholding the promises that we have made. Arguably, it is one of the reasons why the previous Minister is not here today. These are serious issues and, as she put it, a

“jocular self-serving approach is bound to have its limitations.”

How right she was. Our amendments highlight some of those limitations.

The first of these relates to the Environment Act 2021 and specifically the Government’s obligations under sections 17 to 19. Section 17 states:

“The Secretary of State must prepare a policy statement on environmental principles” to be interpreted and applied in the making of Government policy. Section 17(5) lays out a definition of “environmental principles”, which include

“the principle that environmental protection should be integrated into the making of policies…the principle of preventative action to avert environmental damage…the precautionary principle, so far as relating to the environment…the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source, and…the polluter pays principle.”

Some Members will recall extensive discussion in the Environment Act proceedings as to exactly what that meant.

Section 18 details the timeframe for the policy statement, and section 19 details the obligations that Ministers are under once the statement is finalised. Section 19(1) states:

“A Minister of the Crown must, when making policy, have due regard to the policy statement on environmental principles currently in effect.”

The problem is that the Government have yet to finalise the statement. A draft was published in May 2022, but we are yet to have a response from the Secretary of State, or the final version of the policy statement. Sadly, the Minister who issued the press release about the statement, Rebecca Pow, is no longer in her place, either.

The Environment Act was heralded by the Government as “World-leading”—remember that? The Prime Minister hailed it as the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth, neatly timing Royal Assent to the Bill with the COP26 summit hosted in Glasgow. However, a raft of policies in this sphere and specifically in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have been brought forward that will have significant impacts on the environment, before the Government have fulfilled their obligations under the Environment Act.

The Government cannot have it both ways. They cannot hail the success of their environmental legislation, while failing to follow through on it or deliver on its aims and failing to hold themselves accountable in their creation of policy to the obligations that were set out. Great claims have been made, but they are not being followed through.

Amendment 26 would help the Government out. It would ensure that regulations under the Bill are made in accordance with the environmental principles set out in section 17(5) of the Environment Act. Amendment 27 would ensure that no regulations may be made under the Bill unless the policy statement has been finalised and laid before Parliament, and Ministers are under an obligation to pay due regard to it. I look forward to enthusiastic support from those on the Government Benches to furthering the aims of their own legislation.

Amendment 26 concerns article 391 of the trade and co-operation agreement between the UK and the EU, which was agreed in December 2020—I am sure the Minister remembers it well. Chapter 7 of the TCA covers environment and climate, and defines environmental levels of protection as

“the levels of protection provided overall in a Party’s law”— that refers to the parties to the agreement, before anyone gets any ideas—

“which have the purpose of protecting the environment including the prevention of a danger to human life or health from environmental impacts”.

The TCA then lists some specific examples, some of which would concern this Bill. Those include:

“the protection and preservation of the aquatic environment” and

“the management of impacts on the environment from agricultural or food production”.

Each party in the agreement—the EU and the UK— committed to

“the principle that environmental protection should be integrated into the making of policies”,

as well as to “the precautionary approach” and

“the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source”.

Article 391 of the TCA sets out the rules on non-regression from these levels of environmental protection. It allows

“each Party…to determine the environmental levels of protection and climate level of protection it deems appropriate and to adopt or modify its law and policies in a manner consistent with each Party’s international commitments”.

However, the TCA also aims to prevent either party from weakening environmental legislation below the levels in place at the end of the transition period:

“A Party shall not weaken or reduce, in a manner affecting trade or investment between the Parties, its environmental levels of protection or its climate level of protection below the levels that are in place at the end of the transition period, including by failing to effectively enforce its environmental law or climate level of protection.”

I am not a lawyer, although the Minister is, as I have often pointed out, but it seems to me that the non-regression rules allow the UK to argue that it is allowed to change its regulation on precision breeding to create the new category we are discussing, that it can do so safely and that there is an environmental case for doing so. However, while we may argue that, some may equally argue—we heard this in the evidence sessions—that doing so poses environmental risks. Although the Bill attempts to manage those, and we broadly agree they could be managed, the safeguards should be strengthened. My point is that there are potential grounds for disagreement.

It also seems that the EU could make a determination on how the UK has moved, carry out an assessment itself on the balance of risks and benefits, and make a judgment on whether we have adhered to the non-regression rule. Given that we trade with the EU extensively, and this element of the TCA explicitly references impacts on trade, I hope the Minister will be able to explain the Government’s assessment of how the Bill will interact with the TCA, whether parity is maintained and whether there will be any trade repercussions as a result.

The other day, I quoted the impact assessment on the economic consequences of the EU taking a different view, and I want to go back to that. Although the text was printed in Hansard, I am not sure that I presented those details with quite the force I should have done. Paragraphs 144 to 146 of the impact assessment, on page 48, in the section “Assessment of likely EU response”, are frankly staggering. The Government appear to be prepared to concede that, if there were a disagreement, our markets—our exports to the EU—would in effect be closed. Paragraph 146 states:

“Approximately 55% of all crop-related food exports from the UK are to the EU…And so, it would be difficult to replace EU demand”—

you’re telling me it would be difficult! It goes on:

“Therefore, there is a possibility for a portion of the £8.56 billion worth of crop-related exports to the EU to decrease”.

But most staggeringly of all, that is followed by an attitude of, “Well, never mind,” as the impact assessment continues:

“Nonetheless, this represents only 2.5% of our annual total value of exported goods and 5.4% of our annual value of exported goods to the EU. And so, even if UK crop-related food exports are maximally impacted, the overall impact on the UK balance of trade is minimal.”

I find that absolutely staggering and, on behalf of the food and agriculture sector, I invite the Minister to dissociate herself from that aspect of the impact assessment. The impact assessment has a lot of interesting stuff in it, but I suspect a lot of it was not read as closely as it should have been.

We will not press both amendments to a vote, although we may press one of them, but I do ask those questions of the Minister. We want a strong and effective new regulatory system for precision bred organisms—a system that the world will follow and that will enable us to trade with our closest partners. Throughout the progress of the Bill, I have been sceptical that it will create such a regulatory system, and this issue is one reason why we are concerned.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2:45 pm, 7th July 2022

I have listened with interest to the points made by the hon. Gentleman. It is not necessary to put either amendment in the Bill, and I will do my best to reassure him as to why that is the case.

The scientific advice is clear that precision breeding poses no greater risk to the environment than traditional breeding. Section 19 of the Environment Act 2021 provides that Ministers must have due regard to the policy statement on environmental principles. DEFRA has already published and laid that statement before Parliament for debate. I understand that that is the draft version, but we have made it clear that our intention is to publish the final version in autumn this year. Therefore, by the time regulations are made under this Bill, the final version of the policy statement will have been laid before Parliament, and section 19 will be in force. It is therefore unnecessary to make a provision that will be meaningless by the time the Bill comes into force.

However, to provide more assurances, let me add that one of the five principles—the precautionary principle—was touched on in the evidence sessions, including by the hon. Gentleman, and I believe that many of the experts are satisfied that it is being met. They include Professor Jim Dunwell, the chair of the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment; Dr Alan Tinch; and Professor Gideon Henderson. To quote Gideon,

“the Bill we are putting forward now is precautionary—it follows the guidelines of the precautionary principle. We are not leaping in with both feet, but we are moving in stepwise motion.”––[Official Report, Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Public Bill Committee, 30 June 2022; c. 89, Q145.]

In line with the requirements of section 20 of the Environment Act, we have reviewed whether the Bill reduces existing environmental protections. Based on the scientific advice from the independent scientific committee ACRE, our assessment is that the provisions do not have the effect of weakening environmental protections. We published that statement when the Bill was introduced.

I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Cambridge said about the TCA. The scientific advice is clear that precision breeding poses no greater risk to the environment than traditional breeding, and we therefore believe that the Bill is consistent with our non-regression commitment to the EU. Indeed, the EU is consulting on its own new regulatory framework for precision bred plants. The TCA aims to prevent either party from weakening their environmental protections below the levels that were in place at the end of the transition period. Article 391 states:

The Parties…shall not weaken or reduce, in a manner affecting trade or investment…environmental levels of protection”.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

I am listening to a really good debate. Does the Minister agree that the Bill gives us the opportunity to strengthen our environmental protections, not just to maintain the status quo? It is a great leap forward.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Government certainly believe that there are real environmental benefits to allowing carefully regulated precision breeding that enjoys public trust, and we are keen to realise those benefits. Although I am sorry that my hon. Friend Jo Churchill is no longer in position, I was pleased to take over the Committee stage of the Bill because, as Farming Minister, I have long taken a close interest in it. I am very excited, for example, by the reduction in pesticide use that may be brought about really quite quickly if we pass the Bill and crack on with appropriate precision breeding. I do not think it is necessary or appropriate for regulations to be made subject to amendments 26 and 27.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

Two things concern me. First, we know that the Secretary of State has repeatedly expressed doubt about the precautionary principle, suggesting that it is implemented in too strong a fashion and that he wants to row back from that. Secondly, in 2017 we were promised these environmental principles imminently. Now, in 2022, we have a draft statement. That suggests that the Government are not keen to get these principles into law and to implement them; rather, they are doing everything they can to drag their feet. Does the Minister not realise why I have concerns about that?

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Order. If Members wish to make interventions, they should be brief. If they want to make longer interventions, they should try to catch my eye and make a speech.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I understand the hon. Lady’s reservations but I do not share them. The Government have moved as fast as they can, with substantive and lengthy environmentally friendly legislation, much of which the hon. Member for Cambridge and I have discussed at considerable length in Committee and otherwise.

I am proud of the Government’s record on environmental protection. The passing of the Agriculture Act 2020 and the Fisheries Act 2020 will put us on a much more sustainable level in both those industries, in terms of how we apportion public subsidy and how farmers and fishermen grow and fish the food we are proud to enjoy. I am proud of our recent work in the food strategy, where we set out as a Government policy goal the level of self-sufficiency we enjoy at the moment. All that must be read under the overarching protections in the Environment Act 2021, which was also passed by this Government. I am proud of our record.

I will move briefly to clause 43, which provides for the parliamentary procedures to be used when making regulations under the Bill. The clause allows for transitional, transitory or saving provision to be made to ensure a smooth transition from existing arrangements to new ones. That is necessary, because these are complicated pieces of legislation. To reassure hon. Members, I will give one example. Consequential regulations under clause 42 might make provision for entries in the GMO register concerning any qualifying higher plants grown in field trials. Under the changes recently introduced by the Genetically Modified Organisms (Deliberate Release) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2022, those can then be copied across to the PBO register, which we will have established under clause 18. I therefore beg to move that clause 43 stand part.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Order. Just to be clear. We will move to clause 43 stand part later.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

It is okay. You have made your points, Minister. If any other Members wish to speak on clause 43, that will come later.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

What the Minister said was very interesting, not least because one of the questions we have puzzled over is whether qualifying higher plants fit into this structure. We are beginning to see that it is as a consequence of some of these powers, which are, to put it mildly, obscure. As I commented the other day, it is quite hard to discern the overall structure of this legislation, given how little is in the Bill, so I found her comments quite helpful.

We will not pursue amendment 26, which concerns the trade and co-operation agreement, today. I am sure the matters in that amendment will roll on inexorably—they are complicated. The basic point is that different people can interpret things differently, and that gives the possibility of challenge. That is the problem. I fear we will be locked into these kinds of problems for a long time to come, sadly, and we will need to rely on good will and co-operation with our neighbours, which is important.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East made a very strong set of points on the question of the environmental principles and the link to the precautionary principle. Of course, this debate has been ongoing for a long time. I do not think it is unfair to point out that the Secretary of State sees this—a diminution of the precautionary principle—as a Brexit opportunity. Labour does not agree with that, and we have sought at every opportunity to tease their position out of the Government, but frankly they are saying one thing and doing another.

However, that is a debate that can be conducted another day. Environmental lawyers are looking closely at all of this. It is a complicated area, to put it mildly. I dare say it will be contested and probably determined elsewhere. In the meantime, we will continue to point out that gap. On that basis, I will not press amendment 26, but I would like to put amendment 27 to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 27, in clause 43, page 28, line 6, at end insert—

“(7) No regulations may be made under this Act unless—

(a) a policy statement on environmental principles has been laid before Parliament under section 18(6) of the Environment Act 2021, and

(b) section 19 of the Environment Act 2021 is in force.” —

This amendment would prevent the exercise of any powers granted by the Bill until the Government’s policy statement on environmental principles has been finalised and Ministers are under a statutory duty to have due regard to it.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 15 Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill — Clause 43 - Regulations

Aye: 3 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 44 to 47 ordered to stand part of the Bill.