Exiting the European Union (Agriculture)

Monday 18th March 2019

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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HM Treasury
Dame Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton) - Hansard

With the leave of the House, motions 4 and 5 will be debated together.

David Rutley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Rutley) - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:03 p.m.

I beg to move,

That the draft Organic Production (Control of Imports) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 13 February, be approved.

Dame Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:03 p.m.

With this we will consider the following motion:

That the draft Organic Production and Control (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 13 February, be approved.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard

These statutory instruments were made under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 which incorporates EU law into UK domestic law on exit. This Act also gives powers to the UK to make amendments to the retained law to make it operative. One of the things these instruments do is take powers currently held by the Commission and transfer them to the appropriate Ministers in the UK.

These instruments are grouped as they both relate to amendments to EU organic legislation, namely Council Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007 on organic production and labelling of organic products and Commission Regulation (EC) No. 889/2008 laying down detailed rules for the implementation of Council Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007, with regard to organic production labelling and control, and Commission Regulation (EC) No. 1235/2008 laying down detailed rules for implementation of Council Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007 as regards the arrangements for imports of organic products from third countries.

I should make it clear that the instruments do not make any changes to policies; they are purely technical in nature. They correct technical deficiencies in organics legislation to ensure it remains operable on exit and to preserve the organic standards of the current regime. The Government are strongly supportive of organic standards, many of which were developed in the UK and adopted by the EU. The UK has a world-recognised standard of food production and labelling which we wish to see maintained.

The UK organics industry is currently regulated by EU law, which sets out standards for organic production. Regulations apply to the production of food, animal feed and livestock, including bees and farmed fish, marketed as organic. The regulations set out the requirements for organic production, processing, labelling and imports as well as the inspection systems that must be in place to ensure the requirements are met. They stipulate that organic food must be inspected and certified within the scope of a tightly regulated framework and originate from businesses registered and approved by organic control bodies on the basis of a rigorous annual inspection.

The UK has over 6,000 organic operators and the sector is worth over £2.3 billion in the UK economy. Many operators are farmers and small and medium-sized enterprises. Indeed, the Soil Association reports that in 2018 the organic sector was worth £2.3 billion to the UK economy, with organic sales increasing by 5.3% in 2018. The market is in its seventh year of growth. Home delivery of organic produce through online and box schemes is growing fastest, at 14.2%, and independent retailers maintain strong sales of organic, with sales increasing by 6.2%. Key categories driving growth in the market are beers, wines and spirits and chilled foods, and in 2017 exports are estimated to be worth £225 million, excluding food from other processing and animal feed. Ambient grocery products, which include tinned and packaged food, are the largest export.

The first instrument, the Organic Production (Control of Imports) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 makes operable retained EU legislation in Council Regulation (EC) No. 834/2007. Commission Regulation (EC) No. 889/2008 and Commission Regulation (EC) No. 1235/2008 deal with reserved measures covering imports and trade in organic food, feed and vegetative propagating material or seeds for cultivation. For example, the instrument transposed powers from the Commission to the Secretary of State to recognised countries and control bodies that can operate for the purposes of export to the UK. Organic control bodies in third countries will be able to apply to the UK to be recognised to certify products from around the world to import to the UK.

The instrument also sets out minor technical amendments and maintains the status quo until 31 December 2020. To maintain the status quo, this SI gives recognition to certified organic products imported from the EU, the EEA and Switzerland for 21 months. The instrument also applies for the same period of time limit during which the UK would not require additional border checks for organic products imported from the EU, EEA and Switzerland.

Bill Wiggin Portrait Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con) - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:09 p.m.

My hon. Friend will, I hope, come to this later in his speech, but how will we ensure that the standards of our organic farmers in the UK are not undermined if we are not overly attentive of what is being shipped in at the borders?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:09 p.m.

My hon. Friend can be assured that we are in no way seeking to water down our standards. We will no doubt talk further about that during the rest of the debate.

The approach that I have referred to responds to industry concerns and helps to maintain continuity, ensuring a flow of products. The organic regulations will now apply to imports at UK borders rather than EU borders and will ensure the continued regulation and certification of imported organic products to the standards currently applicable in the UK—I underline that point. The import system allows traceability of each product at all stages of production, preparation and distribution. This gives consumers confidence that imported organic products have been produced to the same high standards as UK organic produce.

The draft Organic Production and Control (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 ensure that organic standards remain the same for organic operators within the UK by making operable EU legislation in Council regulation 834/2007 and Commission regulation 889/2008. Without these amendments, part of the legislation would not be operable when applied in a UK-only context—for example, references to the UK as a member state. The certification and traceability of organic food and feed products will continue and standards will remain the same. This instrument sets out minor technical amendments. It also references the time-limited period of 21 months during which we would not require additional border checks for organic products being imported from the EU, European economic area and Switzerland.

The first set of regulations concerns reserved matters, as these regulations relate to the control of imports and exports. The second set concerns devolved matters. That is why we have two SIs before us today. Although there is no formal duty to consult as there are no substantive changes to the status quo, we have engaged with the United Kingdom Organic Certifiers Group, UKOCG, and from that engagement it is clear at the outset that the UK organic control bodies are particular concerned about continuing recognition of UK certified organic products by the EU and recognition of EU imports by the UK. Our decision to continue to recognise products from the EU, EEA and Switzerland for a time-limited period has been welcomed by the group as it provides certainty on imports for the immediate future. We continue to work closely with the group on this and on the future implementation of the UK regulations.

These statutory instruments apply to the United Kingdom, and we have worked with the devolved Administrations on their development. Officials have had very helpful discussions with their counterparts in the DAs, and we are working with them on all aspects of the organics regime to form an agreement on how we can all work together moving forward.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:13 p.m.

The Minister is probably aware that concern has been expressed by some agri-food companies in my constituency, although perhaps not those in the organic business, about packaging, labels and access to those things. There seem to be some delays either from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs here in London. They are asking what food stamp they will have to have on their packaging so that they can export their products. There is some cloudiness or mystery about exactly what that will be. Can the Minister clarify where we are?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:14 p.m.

I understand, I think, the hon. Gentleman’s point, in the sense that there are a number of labelling issues, as he appreciates—I know he is an expert in these matters. I think the point he is making is about the EU logo, which is mandatory for all products packaged in the EU. In the event of no deal, such products should not use the EU organic logo, but producers can continue to use the logos of their organic control body and certification code and sell in the UK and in countries that have agreed that the UK has sufficiently similar organic standards. That said, as he knows, there are still issues—I have no doubt that Members will speak about this—to do with the EU’s recognition of UK organics. There are issues with labelling that I can take up with him in more detail separately.

I will now wrap up my initial remarks, hear what other Members have to say and come back to these points in more detail. These measures remain essential to ensure that UK organic businesses can maintain their organic certification. These statutory instruments will ensure that the strict standards in place for organic production are maintained when we leave the European Union. I commend them to the House.

Dr David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op) Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:17 p.m.

I am delighted to be taking part in this debate at this fairly late hour. We could have done this in a Committee Room upstairs at 6 o’clock, so it is good to know that the timetabling really is working well. At least we have a packed Gallery wanting to listen to our every word. We would not have had that if we had been doing this upstairs at 6 o’clock, because our Second Delegated Legislation Committee earlier was also packed—with no members of the public. There is something about what we are saying or doing that is not quite hitting the public’s imagination. However, these draft regulations relate to an important issue for the organic industry. The topic of the earlier Committee—the movement of animals—was also important, for reasons that I set out then, and I do not intend to repeat them.

The Lords debated the two statutory instruments that we are considering now on 13 March, so there has been some scrutiny. However, our caveat, as always, is that the process has been terribly rushed, and none of us knows quite what the repercussions will be. Although the civil servants are doing a wonderful job of cutting and pasting 43 years’-worth of European regulations, no one knows how well that is being done. We will not see the impact for some time, but there will be an impact.

We do not have any particular problem with taking the two statutory instruments together, but the issue at the heart of all this, as has been picked up by the National Farmers Union and the Soil Association, is to what extent we can guarantee that the quality of our organic industry will not be undermined by cheaper imports. That is a real threat, because the proposed trade deals are with countries that have different organic standards. The US, for example, does things very differently from us when it comes to the treatment of organic produce, both in growing it and in trying to keep it as fresh as possible for as long as possible.

It took some time to work all this regulation through with our EU neighbours. There was no quick fix, and our approach to organic standards is different from that of some other EU countries. It is good to see the former Minister, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), in his place, because he signed off one of these statutory instruments, so I am glad that he has come to check that we are doing a good job. He may have something to say about what he did in signing it off. The draft regulations are about ensuring that we not only do not dilute our standards, but keep our export markets in place. The last thing we want is to shut down our potential future exports when we have been successful. Even though we are still a major importer of organic produce, we have a good reputation based on what we sell abroad.

I have some questions for the Minister; it would be a surprise if I did not. The first is about what would happen if we crashed out of the EU on 29 March. What guarantees that existing regulations and, dare I say, the certification bodies are able to handle a purely UK-based measure of good organic quality? We already have different measures, as there are six mainland bodies and two from Northern Ireland, about which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will no doubt say something later. We need to be absolutely clear that those bodies can undertake proper scrutiny of what is good-quality food, because if our standards slip, we will lose our export markets.

Although the Soil Association is by far the largest certification body, it is not the only one, so if things go wrong next week, what is in place to ensure that this industry, which is a microcosm of British agriculture, but a very important part of it, can cope with whatever is coming its way? Those are the concerns that have been expressed to me and, no doubt, the Minister. If we go through this transition period, as we hope, we will have 21 months available. What measures will be put in place to ensure that we do not in any way undermine the quality of produce in this country during that period? Labelling is so important. In this area of agriculture, we need to know that what is on the label is actually being delivered. We have to get that right, but we also have to be clear that anyone in the EU from whom we import materials during those 21 months is keeping to their side of the bargain.

This is really about how important the Government see this industry as being. It is still a nascent industry in which we want more farmers involved; 6,000 producers are defined as organic, and we want that number to increase, because this is a successful niche market. We would hope that the Government had good strategies to ensure that growth continues.

As usual, I have my ask about access to the TRACES—trade control and expert system—database. Presumably, that has been pretty important in enabling us to know that things that are defined as organic across the EU can be defined in that way, and so can be put on a database in which there is some commonality. What progress is being made on that? I asked the Minister earlier about the animal issues that we were looking at during debate on the agricultural statutory instrument. It would be interesting to know what progress the Government were making on the alternative to the TRACES database, or whether they are able to pay money to keep their place on the database. I am not totally sure about that. In the interim, will we be stuck with some manual processing of the certification measures?

It would have been helpful if we had got the Agriculture Bill through, because what we are dealing with here might have been part and parcel of that. Sadly, we hear nothing of the Agricultural Bill or, sadly for my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), the Fisheries Bill. We rushed through those before Christmas, so that we could have a comprehensive approach to fishing and agriculture, but sadly those Bills seem to have disappeared into the ether. I hope that we will not be faced with their having to be reintroduced in a new Session, as some of us worked hard on them. It would be hard for some of us to have to go through them all again, given that even though we disagreed on elements of those Bills, we did make some progress. We were hoping that on Third Reading, and particularly on Report, we would be able to make further progress and improvements to that legislation.

In conclusion, I hope that the Government have got the message that we have tried to play our part in scrutiny, and in looking seriously at these important bits of legislation, albeit at nearly half-past 10 at night. We have a number of other SIs before us this week— I believe I have seven, which for me is a record—so we will be meeting on a regular basis. It is important that we undertake this scrutiny to the best of our ability, and we can do that only if the Government are absolutely clear on why they are bringing legislation forward, and on how they will at least maintain standards and, if at all possible, improve them.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con) - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:26 p.m.

I rise to support these two statutory instruments. I will be brief because, although I intended to serve on the original Committee, I appreciate that I have not had a chance to give you a great deal of notice of my intention to speak in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I pay tribute to our civil service and the officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who, on these regulations and many others, have done a sterling job in making sure that retained EU law is operable should we leave without an agreement at the end of this month. Over the past six months, I have seen at first hand the huge amount of work put in by DEFRA officials, working late at night, to ensure that we have such statutory instruments in place so that retained EU law is operable when we leave.

We often read media reports that we are not ready for a no-deal exit and that we could not possibly leave without an agreement, and on that basis Parliament decided last week to vote to say that we should not leave without a withdrawal agreement. My experience in the Department until quite recently is that a huge amount of work has been put in, and the civil service has made sure it is an option for us to leave without an agreement, should that be necessary and should Parliament have the courage to do so. Obviously, we will find out in the next couple of weeks whether, indeed, that is still necessary.

Both sets of regulations, in common with all statutory instruments tabled under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, make very minor changes simply to make existing retained EU law operable.

Sandy Martin (Ipswich) (Lab) Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:26 p.m.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my fear that people working extremely hard very late at night to get through vast quantities of regulations might make some mistakes?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:29 p.m.

No, I do not. Having worked in DEFRA for five and a half years, I have tremendous admiration and respect for all those people. Although they work very hard through the night, somebody will mark and check their work the next day. That is how our civil service works, and it has made a sterling effort to make sure we have all these regulations in order.

As a general rule, almost every regulation of these two statutory instruments substitutes “Secretary of State” for “European Commission”. These regulations are not complicated but rather straightforward. We often hear a lot about so-called Henry VIII powers in such debates, and there is a suspicion that, through the use of statutory instruments, we might be making changes to primary legislation that should not be made.

In truth, the most pernicious use of a Henry VIII power in modern times has been section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972, which has run rampant through whole pieces of primary legislation, even important flagship Acts that predate our membership of the European Union. We are in a rather odd situation in debating on the Floor of the House whether it is okay to change “European Commission” to “Secretary of State”, as the original powers implied by these statutory instruments were imposed by the European Union without any debate in this House, typically through either an implementing Act or a delegated Act, and therefore with little or no scrutiny by the European Parliament and often with little or no scrutiny by the European Council. The role of this Parliament, if it was lucky, was to receive an explanatory memorandum but, by and large, only ever to receive letters to the European Scrutiny Committee advising on what the European Union had done to us.

Nevertheless, this is what taking back control means. It means that our Parliament, for once, is starting to take an interest in these matters, rather than leaving them to the European Union.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con) - Hansard

I pay enormous tribute to my hon. Friend. I was his Parliamentary Private Secretary when he was an Agriculture Minister, and I went through a great amount of this important work with him. On organic standards, is it not the case that we very much see ourselves as setting the bar not just nationally but across Europe and across the world, that we have influenced Europe on these standards and that we ought to keep these standards as high, if not higher, in leaving?

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:29 p.m.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, that is exactly what the regulations are about. We have had some influence on the organics regulations. Indeed, when I first became Agriculture Minister, something called the organics dossier was going through the European Parliament, and it concluded that journey only around six or nine months ago. Along with the smarter rules for safer food dossier, it became something of an internal joke about an interminable debate taking place in the European Union. In the end, we managed to get that agreement into something that was satisfactory to us, although it meant that not much had changed.

Finally, let me recognise something in the statutory instrument related to the control of imports. As the shadow Minister said, we are indeed ready to replace the EU trade control and expert system with a new UK system that has been in development in DEFRA for at least the past nine months. There has been a prototype version for several months and it will be ready to replace TRACES from the point at which we leave the European Union. I welcome the Minister’s point about the recognition of existing EU logos and standards for a 21-month period. Of course, we all hope that the European Union will do the honourable and sensible thing and reciprocate.

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:31 p.m.

You wait ages for one Drew to come along, Madam Deputy Speaker, and then two come along together.

Agriculture is a critical industry for the rural communities throughout Scotland. It is very important to the people who elected me and many of my colleagues. The regulations are part of a process that takes away rights from people, takes away guarantees and opportunity, takes away power from the Scottish Parliament and puts business and food production at severe risk.

The agriculture sector in Scotland currently depends on 10,000 non-UK migrant workers in the soft fruit and vegetable sectors for the harvest in the summer and autumn, especially in the highlands. Tens of millions of pounds could be lost as there is no certainty about whether the LEADER programme will continue. The programme has provided £50 million from the EU with match funding of £50 million. Nor is there any certainty that funding for agri-environment schemes that support climate-change objectives will be available post-Brexit. That means a potential loss of around £40 million per year.

No rural constituency in Scotland voted for Brexit—none of them voted in favour of leaving the EU—yet Scotland is having to leave with the rest of the UK. All Brexit scenarios are bad for Scotland. We are 11 days away from leaving the EU and we still do not know whether we will leave with no deal or, if there is a deal, how that will affect rural Scotland. All sectors of the Scottish rural economy would be negatively affected by a no-deal Brexit, but the farming and food and drink sectors are particularly exposed. Brexit is bad for our EU friends, neighbours and colleagues.

A no-deal Brexit is projected to result in EU migration falling and potentially turning negative. That would create skills shortages for industries such as agriculture and food processing, which, as I said, rely on EU and seasonal workers. EU citizens who are currently working and living in the rural economy will be able to stay only if they apply for settled status. The Migration Advisory Committee’s proposals and the £30,000 salary requirement for skilled workers would mean that many sectors in Scotland’s rural economy would find it hard to recruit seasonal migrant workers.

Under the common agricultural policy, the EU provides £500 million for Scotland’s rural economy. There have been no guarantees from the UK Government on that funding after 2020. We do not know whether funding will be available to pay farmers and crofters after the scheme year 2021; the UK’s guarantee on agricultural support is to the end of this Parliament only.

The food and drink sector estimates that a no-deal Brexit could lead to a loss of £2 billion-worth of food and drink sales, with implications for the rural communities where many producers are based. We will lose the European Food Safety Authority’s expertise in the risk assessing of marketing applications for genetically modified organisms, unless the UK remains in the European economic area or European Free Trade Association after leaving the EU.

Owing to strict health rules, the EU bans the importation of seed potatoes from third countries with the exception of Switzerland. Therefore, leaving without a deal would close the EU market to around 20,000 to 30,000 tonnes of seed potatoes exported annually, which currently generates around £6 million.

There is no certainty that the alternative markets for this seed, at home and abroad, can be found, resulting potentially in price depression across the whole of the Scottish seed industry. We will no longer be part of the EU’s Community Plant Variety Office and if we leave without a deal, applications for registrations of plant varieties and intellectual property protection will have to be made in both the UK and the EU, resulting in a doubling of registration costs for plant breeders. We will also not have access to the advisory group on food chain and animal and plant health, which covers Scotland’s tree health interests.

The Scottish Government’s position is that the EU organics legislation is devolved and that functions in the proposed regulations could be exercised for a devolved purpose. The provisions in the organics legislation are observing and implementing obligations under the CAP. These should not be transferred solely to the Secretary of State. Food standards, post-Brexit, will be a critical issue and it is crucial that neither food safety nor standards are diluted or diminished. That is a commitment that should be legislated for in the forthcoming Report stage of the Agriculture Bill.

The stockpiling of food in preparation for Brexit demonstrates the drastic effect that the Brexit process has on the most basic of human needs. It is scandalous that this is even having to be considered. The UK Government must now either extend article 50 and set in motion plans to hold a second EU referendum with remain on the ballot paper or revoke article 50. Staying in the EU is the best for all. It is what Scotland and Northern Ireland voted for. It is the only way to protect jobs, living standards, our public services, economy and food standards and supply. Scotland did not vote for Brexit and we should not be dragged out of the EU against our will. The way that Scotland has been treated throughout means that the case for Scottish independence has never been stronger.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:37 p.m.

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate; I think that we should perhaps get back to organic farming. It is nice to speak after my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). I would like to put on the record my thanks for all the work that he did as Minister and all the great, detailed help that he has given the whole agriculture sector over this five-year period.

I welcome this debate tonight. We must remember that organic production in the UK is probably one of the best—if not the best—in the world. Converting to organics takes longer in this country than it does in other EU countries, even under present legislation. We must remember that our poultry, pig, beef, lamb and dairy industries all operate under very high standards of organic production and people respect and trust that production. We must remember, as we move forwards, to make sure that imports meet our very, very high standards.

We also have a lot of vegetable and fruit production, but much of that is organic. Again, it needs a great deal of labour. If a farmer weeds organically, they are not using any form of chemicals to destroy those weeds, which means that they have to use extra labour in order to keep that production going. We may in the future be able to electrocute weeds provided that we get them at a very early age. Seriously, this is something that may well help with the labour requirements in production in the future, but again that will not happen overnight, so we must be realistic as we move forward. I agree very much with the Minister and the previous Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth, that DEFRA has done an awful lot of work to prepare either for a deal on Brexit or for no deal.

We can deal well with the imports of organic food, because we can bring products in, check the standards and ensure that they flow freely into the country. Where I have slightly more of a problem—DEFRA has admitted this to me, although it is not its fault—is that every time the Department contacts the European Union about registering as a third country and ensuring that there is third country equivalence, we just do not get a reply. To a degree, we can let the imports flow in because we can recognise the previous EU standards, but it will be much more difficult to get that food across the channel if the EU decides to play hard ball.

George Eustice Portrait George Eustice - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:40 p.m.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about being listed as a third country so that exports can continue. Shortly before I left the Department, there was a request from the European Union that we dynamically align our regulations for a period of nine months, and in return the EU would recognise our third country status from the start. We are obviously willing to agree to that.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:41 p.m.

I very much welcome that comment, because two or three weeks ago, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee went to DEFRA, where we saw the regulations being laid out and had a look at what was happening. I welcome what my hon. Friend said, but I reiterate that as much as I may love our French cousins, they can be very difficult when it comes to trading into the European Union. Much of our produce will have to pass from Dover through into Calais, and we have to be absolutely certain that they will process our food and let it into the EU.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Ind) Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:42 p.m.

My hon. Friend rightly makes the point that we can unilaterally decide to be freer about letting goods come across our border. However, surely one issue is that a free-for-all and a lack of proper checking could put the organic sector at risk.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:43 p.m.

The hon. Lady raises a good point. Milk production is a good example. Organics is a selected market; although a good number of people buy organics, there is a ceiling of around 10% of people who actually buy organics overall. Therefore, exporting organic food is as important as importing it. On the dairy side of organics, the big milk co-operative Omsco trades very successfully into the United States, but that has to be maintained—and we must have the certification, and all these other things must work, in order for that to happen. That is why we have to be very careful to ensure that we can trade successfully in a no-deal situation.

I spent a number of years in the European Parliament, so I know that our great French cousins are able, for example, to stop cheese coming in from Holland when they suddenly decide that there might be a problem with it and that it might actually help the French market to keep it out for a while. The European Commission then challenges them, and eventually they capitulate and the cheese comes back in from Holland. The point that I am making quite clearly tonight is: let us go in with our eyes open to the fact that there could well be a problem in the future if we do not get these rules right and recognised, and if we do not actually get that produce back into the EU. As we leave the European Union, it is very important that we take as much of trade with us as possible, and then we can also have future trading relationships across the world.

Thank you for letting me speak in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow (Taunton Deane) (Con) - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:44 p.m.

I am delighted to take part in this debate.

The organic sector in this country prides itself on its high standards. We set a very high bar and are renowned for expertise in this area. Indeed, we have been leaders in the field globally. I therefore welcome these regulations ensuring that our organic standards will remain exactly as they are when we leave the EU. We will embrace the current regulations but I am led to believe that, as and when the EU, after we have exited, decides that it might change its regulations, we will consider the regulations and decide, on their merits, whether they are right for us and whether to adopt them. This is one of the benefits of leaving, in that we can start to plan much more freely for ourselves.

Crucially, we have to keep these high standards. That is very important because we currently have 6,000 organic producers in this country who will be wanting certainty so that they can continue business as usual. We have many such businesses in the south-west.

Peter Heaton-Jones (North Devon) (Con) Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:45 p.m.


Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:45 p.m.

I will of course give way to a fellow Member from the south-west.

Peter Heaton-Jones Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:45 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She raises exactly the right point. It is good to see so many south-west constituencies represented across the House today. It is a very important region for producers in the organic sector. The crucial point is that many of them are very small businesses. They are often not large farms or large producers but small farmhouse-table businesses. These small producers with narrow margins have to know where they stand and get certainty. That is why this statutory instrument, and all the work that was done under the previous Minister and is being done under the current Ministers, is vital.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow - Hansard

Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend—I could not agree more. He is right about the south-west. I was going to name just some of the businesses in the area. We have Riverford Organic Farmers, which has franchises all over the region; there may be some in his constituency. We have Merricks Organic Farm in Langport and Stream Farm in the Quantocks. They often do a whole range of products—beef, chicken, lamb, and even trout and strawberries. They are holistic but often small businesses that are absolutely dependent on keeping the purity of the standards for organic produce.

Bill Wiggin Portrait Bill Wiggin - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:47 p.m.

What I find most important is that the consumer has confidence, when they see what the label says, that that is actually what they are going to buy. That is not always true of pasture-fed produce, but it needs to be. The support that the organic sector has had from the legislation and the Government has been tremendous. I would like us to spread this much further and encourage more businesses like those my hon. Friend mentioned. I hope she agrees.

Rebecca Pow Portrait Rebecca Pow - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:47 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I thoroughly agree. I know that his own beef animals are pasture-fed—an excellent system in its own right that is really good for sequestering carbon in the grass. He is so right about the labelling. The consumer needs to know what they are buying. That is why these regulations are really important. If people are buying organic, they need to know that it is organic and up to our high standards, not some watered-down standards from somewhere else.

We have quite a large number of organic milk farms, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned. In Somerset, we have Coombe Farm Organic—milk producers who have three main farms and 1,000 cows. It is imperative for companies such as that that we know that their produce is organic, why it has been classed as organic and that it has been checked. Often, it has been checked by the Soil Association, which is the main organisation in this country that certifies organic produce. It has 27,000 members and is very much valued. It developed the world’s first organic certification system, way back in 1967. The standards have been widened since that time, so they encompass agriculture, aquaculture, ethical trade—I have a company in my constituency, Hambleden Herbs, that imports lots of spices and herbs, all organic—food processing, forestry and horticulture. It is really important that we maintain this system of standards so that these businesses can carry on operating from day one on leaving the EU and we can know that they are doing the right thing. It is important that we keep our high standards.

The organic sector is valuable, as we have heard—it brings £2.2 billion per annum to the UK economy, and our exports are worth £200 million, so that is also significant. The sector is growing because there is now a lot more emphasis on what we might call environmental farming or eco-farming. That is all referenced in the Agriculture Bill, the new environmental land management schemes, the 25-year environment plan and the forthcoming environment Bill. I believe that the organic system will grow, which is why it is even more important that we maintain our standards.

Just today, as luck would have it, I hosted an event on soil in Westminster, which was attended by more than 200 people. We talked about the degradation of our soils and the cost to the economy, which is a staggering £1.2 billion a year. I am pleased to say that there is a great deal of talk about soil going on through the Bills that are being introduced. The way to prevent soil degradation is to introduce policies that ensure healthy soils and biodiversity, with all the things that soil brings to us, including carbon capture, which will help with our climate change targets and mitigation—I see the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth sitting on the Front Bench—as well as flood resilience and providing healthy food.

Inevitably this soil health agenda will drive us towards management systems that are along more environmentally friendly farming lines and, for purists, along more organic lines. The standards will remain very necessary, as they will if we work towards improving biodiversity in this country, which is equally important. For example, there has been a desperate crash in insect numbers here and globally, with flying insect populations globally down by two thirds. Insects are the workforces of agriculture—they pollinate our crops, and we rely on them. The sustainability of the planet depends on redressing these crashes in biodiversity across the board for all sorts of species. That inevitably means that we will use less pesticides and adopt more environmentally-friendly methods of farming through land management systems, and if we head towards organic, the standards that we will maintain through the regulations will be more important than ever. The regulations apply to imports and exports; that is very important. We must ensure that they cover vegetative material for propagation in the horticultural industry and others and seeds for cultivation.

One of the most exciting and interesting television series I ever presented back in the day was called “Loads More Muck and Magic”. It was an organic gardening series—I think it was the only one ever on television—on Channel 4. It was filmed in conjunction with the Henry Doubleday Research Association, which was the expert in organic growing at the time and is now called Garden Organic. That series instilled in me a great knowledge; I learned a great deal. I will never profess to be an expert, but I realised what purists organic farmers are and how valuable they are to the environment. They remain so, and I believe they will have more influence. The regulations will ensure that those standards are maintained, and I fully support them.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Parliament Live - Hansard
18 Mar 2019, 10:52 p.m.

This debate has been interesting; I think we should do it more often at this hour. I will keep this short, because my good friends in the Whips Office are giving me the evil eye—I always want to ensure that I do what they want—and I know that Madam Deputy Speaker is keen for us to move quickly on.

We have had some fantastic contributions, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). I did not know about her involvement with “Loads More Muck and Magic”, but clearly we have some real talent and expertise on this subject in the House, for which we are grateful. We also heard the enthusiasm of my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin).

I want to reassure the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) that there will not be a free-for-all. In my brief comments, I hope I can reassure her, the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) and others who raised concerns about this issue. We are committed to ensuring that the UK maintains its high standards for organic production and retains a strong testing regime for organic goods. The hon. Member for Stroud talked about control bodies. They will continue to certify operators as they do now. They are all accredited by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service as suitable to be a certification body, and that important work will continue. Before the UK accepts any applications from third countries or control bodies, rigorous checks will be carried out to ensure that the current high organic standards in the UK will be maintained.

Comments have been made about TRACES. We are replacing the TRACES NT import system, which is different from TRACES, with a manual system for an interim period for organics, until an electronic replacement is available. The manual system mirrors the one that was in place 17 months ago. A trial with a number of importers, with support from port health authorities, is being carried out to refine guidance, and it will help to ensure a smooth transition. We are looking at autumn 2020 for the electronic replacement.

There are of course opportunities ahead, not least because my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) was the Minister of State. He was an illustrious Minister of State, which is probably an understatement, given that he was in post for five years. He carried out really important work to set out the framework for the Agriculture Bill. I am really pleased to have sitting beside me his successor as the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill)—another outstanding Minister—who is just back in the Chamber, hotfoot from the EU Agriculture Council meeting today. The Agriculture Bill sets out how farmers and land managers will in the future be paid for public goods, such as better air and water quality and improved soil health. All of this will help the organic sector to move further forward.

We are working with organic and control bodies, and we have been holding technical discussions with the European Commission about the UK’s organic third-country recognition and to explore routes to help to ensure that UK organic products can continue to access the EU market. I recognise the fact that we have heard from both the former Minister of State and the current Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and I hope that the EU will be listening to their very wise words.

We had a wide-ranging—and wide, I would say—speech from the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry). [Interruption.] No, not him, but his comments. He made points about devolution, but these statutory instruments apply to the United Kingdom, and we have worked with the devolved Administrations on their development. Officials have had very helpful discussions with counterparts in the devolved Administrations, not least in the Scottish Government—I was up there speaking to one of the Ministers about this—and we are working with them on all aspects of the organics regime to form an agreement on how we will all work together. I thank them for their work on these important statutory instruments in recent months.

I conclude by saying that, for the reasons I have set out, I commend these statutory instruments to the House.

Question put.

The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 20 March (Standing Order No. 41A).

Motion made, and Question put,

That the draft Organic Production and Control (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on 13 February, be approved.—(David Rutley.)

The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday 20 March (Standing Order No. 41A).