Report stage & Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard) & Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Wednesday 6th January 2021

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Trade Bill 2019-21 View all Trade Bill 2019-21 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 128-R-III Third marshalled list for Report - (22 Dec 2020)
Baroness Boycott Portrait Baroness Boycott (CB) [V]
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I support Amendment 22 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and will vote for it. On the previous day of the debate, I spoke at some length about the importance of ensuring that our trade standards are consistent with our high standards of food and animal welfare, and our climate and environmental obligations in particular. I will not repeat those arguments here, because I have bored noble Lords enough by my concerns about public health and food, but this amendment is important and, without it, we run a lot of danger of leaving ourselves open to standards that are below ours and will damage our health, animal health and environment.

More generally, in 2020, we saw a small reduction in emissions globally as a result of the pandemic that we still have. This reduction should not be a blip; we need to see it as a more permanent arrangement and build on it. If we do not have considerations such as those in this amendment brought to the front of trade policy, we risk doubling down on our old ways of trading, increasing global emissions again. We need to use our trade power for good and to encourage others to produce carbon-neutral products. If we do not, even if we reduce emissions at home, we will import them from abroad. The same general principle applies to the food that we import into this country which we expect ourselves and, more importantly, our children to eat.

This amendment is about parliamentary scrutiny, which I am sure will carry favour with many noble Lords. It would not make it illegal to import products that were produced to a lower standard but, as the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, has so clearly set out, it would require consultation and a vote in Parliament to approve any deviation from existing standards. In essence, it is a compromise that would give our farmers as well as the huge swathes of the population which have made their voices heard in the last few months—about their determination to maintain not just good food standards but transparency in food standards—peace of mind without making trade impossible.

Finally, I specifically ask the Minister what he and his department know—I am sure they are aware of it—about the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability, or ACCTS, as it is called. This is led by New Zealand. Nations are free to sign up to it to show that they are committed to using their trade policy to support action on climate change. As we have now left the EU and the transition period is over, can we join this agreement to show our intent in this hugely important year before COP 26? I will return to ACCTS when I talk about labelling later in the debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, for his amendment and give him my wholehearted support.

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Portrait Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD) [V]
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. I speak to Amendments 20 and 22 in this group. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, moved Amendment 20, and I fully support her and others in ensuring that imports will meet the current principal standards on food safety, the environment and animal welfare.

We have had numerous direct debates about ensuring that these issues remain at the forefront of the Government’s commitments to the public. It is, however, vital that in order to trade with least developed countries and encourage their entrepreneurial skills, our standards do not act as a blockage to those countries. At the same time, it is important for public confidence that food safety standards are maintained and animal welfare is not compromised. We are, after all, a nation of animal lovers.

Cross-party Amendment 22, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, also mirrors debates that took place during the passage of the Agriculture Bill. It is an extremely important amendment to ensure that Parliament is fully involved in ensuring that standards affected by international trade agreements are maintained at our current high levels.

Members of Parliament are elected to ensure the well-being of their constituents in a wide variety of areas, and it is simply unacceptable for them to be excluded from debating trade agreements that could have a dramatic impact on local businesses and their constituents. Similarly, the upper Chamber, while not currently elected, has a wealth of expertise and knowledge that can be brought to bear to enhance future trade agreements, where necessary.

Issues of food safety, quality, hygiene and traceability are essential not only to protect consumers but to ensure a level playing field for our farmers and food producers. It is important for human rights and equalities to be included, especially women’s and children’s rights along with other classifications under the Human Rights Act of 1998.

The devolved Administrations should not be an afterthought but should be consulted at an early stage and able to express their view on trade agreements that affect them. The relevant committees of both Houses, including the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, will also have a view.

As we move forward with the continuing process of separating ourselves from the rest of Europe and bringing the UK closer to other countries in the world, standards and scrutiny will be important to maintain the confidence of the public, business and our other partners, some remaining in the EU. This amendment gives the reassurance that is required for this to happen. I fully support these two amendments, and I will support Amendment 22 should the House vote in the virtual Lobby.

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Moved by
26A: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Product standards: labelling
(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations made by statutory instrument make provision that any relevant food agency must specify that products imported under an international trade agreement meet UK levels of statutory protection for—(a) food safety,(b) quality,(c) hygiene,(d) traceability,(e) human and animal welfare, and(f) the environment,with labelling on the packaging.(2) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (1) may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.”
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Baroness Boycott Portrait Baroness Boycott (CB) [V]
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My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment 26A, which concerns the importance of labelling, and will support Amendment 31A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. Both are connected with public health and human health.

People do not realise how hard fought the campaign for clear labelling was. Someone I was at school with called Caroline Walker, a great food campaigner in the 1980s, made the wonderful point that we knew more about the ingredients that went into our socks than we knew about the ingredients that went into our food. She fought long and hard for good, clear labelling, and it would be an incredibly regressive step if, for any reason, the UK lost control of this.

Other countries that we are considering signing trade deals with take very different approaches to labelling. To choose just one example, I am sorry to come back to the USA again but it is permitted to refer to mechanically recovered material as “meat.” This could be any parts of anything that runs around on four legs or two, scrambled together from anywhere.

If the UK opts to accept another country’s labelling as part of a free trade deal, we could end up with food that has less information on labels and perhaps nothing at all. Our own labelling is not brilliant. For instance, pigs can be reared in Denmark, imported into the UK and turned into sausages in the Midlands. They can then be labelled as made in Britain. That is legal, but I think it is slightly deceitful, because it hides the fact that those pigs have been reared in conditions that we find to be unacceptable ill-treatment of animals.

Consumers here are very accustomed to using labels not only to buy what they want but to buy according to their values. They know that they can also eat to stay healthy. It is incredibly important to understand how much salt or sugar there is, and if you are diabetic this is a matter of life and death. The UK’s front-of-pack traffic light labelling scheme, which uses colours, words and numbers to help UK consumers to understand fats and saturated fats, was introduced in 2013. Our Government describe it as

“a crucial intervention to support healthy choices and reduce obesity rates by communicating complex nutritional information to shoppers in a way that’s easy to understand.”

To understand the risk that future trade deals could have on our food labels, leaked US-UK trade negotiation papers show that the US side says that food labels are “harmful” and that they are

“not particularly useful in changing consumer behaviour.”

They say this particularly about sugar, and I would bet my bottom dollar that that comes from the sugar lobby. I and many health experts would beg to disagree.

Health matters are intrinsically interwoven with all food and farming. It is very hard to see how Ministers can try to unpick them and put one bit here and one bit there. Research shows that some of our prospective trade partners have really irresponsible approaches, for instance, to using medically critical antibiotics in farming. It could have a serious impact on health in the UK, despite our own standards, if we water them down in any way. Similarly, prospective trade partners use a great many more pesticides. Some of these are known to be linked to cancers and are currently banned in the UK.

We know that the UK is reliant on foreign trade for a great deal of its fruit and vegetables, but other trade can also have a negative impact on diets. The obesity rates rose in Mexico and Canada post-NAFTA due, most researchers now believe, to the greater availability of food and drink products that are high in calories but very low in nutrition—in other words, snacks and fizzy drinks, out of which the manufacturers make a great deal of money.

Thanks to their greater transparency, the US produces barriers to trade reports. These show their hostility to the sorts of measures which the UK has already introduced or would like to undertake as part of its obesity strategy. It includes front-of-pack labelling, sugary drinks taxes, a ban on junk food adverts, and limiting the use of cartoon characters in marketing and reformulation policies. Free trade agreements could change our food environment not only by increasing the availability of such foods but by limiting our Government’s ability to introduce policies that will help to encourage healthier diets.

Turning to Amendment 31A, I am still confused as to why the Government are happy for the Trade and Agriculture Commission to consider plant and animal health but not human health. The Minister has previously said that consideration will be given to the impact of trade on human health and that advice will be shared with Parliament. However, despite many helpful briefings I am still somewhat confused as to where this incredibly critical issue is going to live. I would like to see it in the Trade and Agriculture Commission, because the commission is statutory and to some degree independent. If it is not going to be there, could the Minister say which agency has the equivalent status and would be best placed to provide advice? Government health agencies do fantastic work, but will they have the independence and clout of the TAC?

There are many issues of human health at stake here. World health rates are not going up, due to bad diets, and I find it deeply alarming that the TAC will not be allowed to consider the impacts of trade on human health. I beg the Minister to reconsider when the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, is put forward. I beg to move.

Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Portrait Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville (LD) [V]
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution to the debate on this group of amendments.

Amendment 26A, on the accurate labelling of products, as laid out so eloquently by the noble Baroness, is essential. I will not repeat the arguments that she has made, which I have made myself in debates. Consumers wish to know that the food they are buying is safe to eat, is of high quality and has been produced in hygienic conditions. Should there be a problem with any of the above, it is important that the produce is traceable, that both human and animal welfare have been protected during production and that the environment has not been damaged during growth and production. The latter is becoming more important by the day as we see the effects of climate change on our environment. Our agriculture and food industry produces the very best for human and animal consumption. Clarity on labelling provides the reassurance that both our farmers and the public expect.

Confidence in government is currently at a bit of a low ebb. It is necessary to repair that confidence, and detailed labelling is a step in the right direction for both farmers and food producers. Both Houses of Parliament must be reassured that this will take place at all stages, from inception—the planting of seeds—right through to harvesting and processing. This cannot be a back-door function of any trade deal.

Amendment 31A would ensure that public and human health came within the remit of the Trade and Agriculture Commission. Given the pandemic that we are living through, it is vital that we as a nation make every effort to ensure that such a situation does not happen in future. The TAC is the right place for this to be considered on a legal footing. Public health is an important element of maintaining confidence in all levels of government, from national level down to district and parish councils. All are interested in ensuring that inequalities are dealt with effectively and removed, and I hope the Minister is able to accept these amendments.

Amendment 34A would leave out the words

“except insofar as they relate to human life or health”.

The amendment would remove the Secretary of State’s ability to limit the advice which the Trade and Agriculture Commission can provide to him or her. For the TAC to be truly effective, it must be able to provide independent advice across a wide range of areas, many of which may not be obvious now. We have no way of telling with any accuracy what future world events may affect our trade and agriculture agreements and sectors, and I believe that it is wise not to be prescriptive at this stage. I support Amendment 31A and will vote in favour of it if a Division is called.

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Lord Grimstone of Boscobel Portrait Lord Grimstone of Boscobel (Con)
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My Lords, I turn now to Amendment 26A, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott.

First, it is important to note—I hope this provides some reassurance to the noble Baroness—that all imports must meet the UK’s regulatory requirements, and this includes imports needing to meet our high food safety standards. Of course, this will remain the case. However, the amendment will undermine our abilities to successfully negotiate and agree new international trade agreements and to import goods from trade partners. That will have implications for all goods imported under our international trade agreements, including continuity agreements and the WTO agreements.

Requiring that such labels be applied to imports only would discriminate between domestic and imported goods. This may seem a technical matter, but it would risk violation of the UK’s WTO and FTA commitments, as well as imposing additional labelling costs and administrative burdens on imports. The amendment would also have dire consequences for developing nations, which are unlikely to be able to meet this new requirement and would no longer be able to export goods to the UK, thereby losing a valuable income stream for them, their local businesses and communities.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, asked about conformity marking. This is a complex matter and to ensure that my answer is completely accurate, I will, with his permission, write to him and, of course, place a copy in the Library.

Turning to Amendments 31A and 34A, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for the meeting we had on Monday to discuss these. I completely understand the good intentions that lie behind these amendments. Of course, the Government recognise that public health and health inequalities are important issues. The fact that advice will not be sought from the statutory TAC in relation to this should in no way dilute this message, which I thoroughly endorse. This is why the Government have taken steps to ensure that relevant interests are taken into account at every step of the negotiations process, from public consultations at the start, dedicated trade advisory groups during it and, of course, independent scrutiny of the final deal at the end.

The government amendment to put the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing, which we discussed at length on the first day of Report, provides an advisory role for the TAC to help inform the report required by Section 42 of the Agriculture Act. The TAC will advise the Secretary of State on the extent to which FTA measures applicable to “trade in agricultural products”—as specified in the Act—are consistent with UK levels of statutory protection relating to animal and plant life and health, animal welfare and the environment. It will not advise on human health because the Government believe that this advice is best taken from other appropriate bodies. This in no way diminishes the importance of that advice; it means that we believe that it would be best for this advice to come from other, better-qualified, bodies. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, we will, of course, make it clear, in due course, where the advice is being drawn from in this important area.

We believe that it would be inappropriate for the TAC to be expanded in the way proposed because there are already groups looking to tackle the issues raised by this amendment. We consider that, if the TAC advised on these issues as well, it would risk wasteful duplication of effort with existing groups with similar functions—indeed, this could overwhelm the TAC and prevent it from fulfilling its obligations in other areas. Important issues such as health inequalities involve multiple factors beyond trade policy that the TAC’s remit cannot fully address. I really believe that this is not the right forum. The TAC’s advice should focus specifically on product characteristics rather than broader policy on public health and health inequalities.

In preparing the Section 42 report, the Secretary of State may also seek advice from any person considered to be

“independent and to have relevant expertise.”

Of course, this will be a transparent process. This does not restrict or exclude experts in any specific area of human health. I hope that this reassures noble Lords, and I ask for the amendment to be withdrawn.

Baroness Boycott Portrait Baroness Boycott (CB) [V]
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First, I thank the Minister and the people who spoke in the debate, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, who made the point that good labelling gives us confidence in the Government, which we all really need right now. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, who made the point that we now take these things for granted and that we should never do so with something like this: it is a privilege to have good labelling, and it is one that we should hold on to. I will not press this to a Division, but I wholly support the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, in his desire to push Amendment 31A to one. I thank the Minister for his words and attempted reassurance, but I am afraid that it has not worked for me at all.