Agriculture Bill

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Excerpts
Committee stage & Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard) & Committee: 6th sitting (Hansard): House of Lords
Thursday 23rd July 2020

(3 years, 11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Agriculture Act 2020 View all Agriculture Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: HL Bill 112-VII Seventh marshalled list for Committee - (23 Jul 2020)
Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con) [V]
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My Lords, Clause 35 on marketing standards is an extremely important part of the Bill. It is odd at this late stage to add a lead amendment slotted in ahead of it containing a new clause on a carbon levy and a carbon sequestration reward scheme. I am against both new suggestions, particularly as part of this Bill. Adding some new idea without costing or analysis, albeit with the excuse that it is just a consultation, sets an unfortunate precedent and reflects badly on this House’s role as scrutineers of legislation. I am disappointed to see the suggestion coming from the Cross Benches, especially in the wake of Covid-19, as it would impose huge burdens on mainly small and struggling rural businesses. It also suggests a carbon levy on imports, which would put up consumer prices at a time when households will be under growing pressure and at risk of unemployment.

The lead amendment should be that in the name of my noble friend Lord Carrington. Amendment 247 tries to focus the extremely wide powers in Part 5 so that they are used to improve the economic conditions of production, marketing and quality of agricultural products, taking account of the expectations of consumers. This seems very sensible and I support him.

I will not delay the House at this late hour with my doubts about various amendments on labelling, except to say that in my long experience in the industry, here and overseas, politicians and other interests are much more interested in labelling than is the consumer whom we are meant to serve, and that there is not nearly enough evidence-gathering and research into the effectiveness of food labelling.

Finally, I agree that standards are important and help to support UK production, as we will discuss in the next group. However, the horsemeat scandal dates back to 2013. Lessons have been learned, and it should not be a driver for the wrong kind of new regulation.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness Portrait Lord Wallace of Tankerness [V]
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My Lords, I support the new clause in Amendment 263, which has already been spoken to by my noble friend Lord Tyler and to which I have added my name.

Before addressing the issue of geographical indication schemes, I will say a word about the related issue of countries-of-origin labelling and express support for the relevant provisions in Amendment 254 in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond. My right honourable friend Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland, recently raised this issue at Prime Minister’s Questions and received what might be interpreted as an encouraging response. Having drawn the Prime Minister’s attention to the fact that Orkney beef producers have their efforts to market a quality product undermined by the labelling legislation in this country, which allows beef from anywhere in the world to be labelled as “British beef” as long as it is packaged in this country, he asked whether in light of any future trade arrangements the Prime Minister would do something to close that loophole. In reply, the Prime Minister said that

“we intend to take advantage of the freedoms that we have—the freedoms that the British people have decided to take back—to make sure that Scottish beef farmers have the protections that they need.”—[Official Report, Commons, 17/6/20; col. 805.]

So this evening the Minister has the opportunity to indicate that the Government will indeed give Scottish beef farmers the protections that they need and to signal a willingness to use this legislation to close a loophole in country-of-origin labelling, thus giving confidence and reassurance to producers and consumers alike.

I would have thought there was common ground that geographical indication schemes bring market benefits to a considerable number of products. Scotland has 14 protected geographical indications. The NFUS describes some—the Scotch beef PGI and the Scotch lamb PGI—as being of strategic importance to Scottish agriculture’s output.

I assume that in future the starting point will be Article 54.2 of the European Union/UK withdrawal agreement of 19 October 2019. It provides that persons who under EU law are entitled to use the geographical indication or the designation of origin

“shall be entitled, as from the end of the transition period … to use the geographical indication, the designation of origin”

concerned in the UK, and that they

“shall be granted at least the same level of protection under the law of the United Kingdom as under the … provisions of Union law”.

Can the Minister confirm how, with less than six months to go, that binding treaty obligation is to be implemented? Is there yet a United Kingdom register?

Of course, this ensures protection in the United Kingdom for a number of geographical indication products that are of importance to European Union countries and for UK produce currently given protection by these EU schemes. The object of this proposed new clause is to probe what continuing protection will be given to the United Kingdom’s geographical indications in the European Union and further afield after the end of the transition period. That is important, not least given the somewhat alarming reports referred to by my noble friend Lord Tyler.

In the Government’s response to a consultation paper on GIs published last year, Defra claimed that

“we anticipate that existing UK GIs will continue to be protected by the EU’s GI schemes after we leave the EU. This is because UK GIs are already protected by virtue of being on the EU’s various GI registers. That protection will continue automatically in the EU unless relevant entries are removed, which would require additional EU legislation.”

Can the Minister confirm that that remains the Government’s expectation, or are the kind of newspaper reports referred to by my noble friend founded and do they give rise to a matter for concern?

Moreover, GI protection has hitherto been afforded to UK products by way of free trade agreements with a large number of non-EU countries. In replying to the debate, can the Minister tell us how many rollover agreements have now been reached, what proportion of UK trade agreements with these countries represent and whether GI provisions have been agreed in each case?

That leaves the question of countries with which we have not yet managed to reach a rollover agreement or where there has yet been no EU free trade agreement to roll over. The USA springs to mind, where there is believed to be some scepticism of GIs in trade agreements. Will the Minister indicate whether the incorporation of GI protection for UK products will be a negotiating objective in any trade agreement with the United States?

Then, of course, there is the proviso of Article 54.2, which states:

“This paragraph shall apply unless and until an agreement as referred to in Article 184 that supersedes this paragraph enters into force or becomes applicable.”

On 2 April, the Financial Times reported:

“The UK is pushing to water down its obligation to recognise valuable EU regional food trademarks for products like Parma ham and Champagne”.

Is that the case? Can the Minister confirm that, in the absence of any agreement by the end of the transition period or if the agreement does not amend the provisions of Article 54.2, the United Kingdom continues to be bound by those provisions as a matter of international law?

I am currently within six or seven miles of two distilleries—Highland Park and Scapa—and my son-in-law works for the Tullibardine distillery in Perthshire, so before concluding I wish to say a word about one of the most valuable protected geographic indications, namely Scotch whisky. It has been defined in United Kingdom law since 1933 and has been protected in a US federal code as whisky

“manufactured in Scotland in compliance with the laws of the United Kingdom”

since the 1960s. Nevertheless, GI schemes have been of enormous benefit to the Scotch whisky industry. It is believed that the protection enjoyed in the United Kingdom as an EU GI is stronger than that provided under our domestic law. The provisions of the EU withdrawal agreement are therefore particularly important in that respect. It is therefore vital that the Minister makes it clear that the protection currently offered to UK GIs will be maintained through the EU withdrawal agreement or any further treaty agreement with the European Union and that, in seeking rollover agreements and other free trade agreements, GI protection, not least for Scotch, will be a negotiating objective. Sláinte.

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Moved by
257: Clause 35, page 33, line 9, at end insert—
“( ) Before making regulations under this section, the Secretary of State must consult anyone reasonably likely to be affected by the regulations and lay a report summarising the responses to that consultation before Parliament.”
Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe [V]
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In moving this amendment, I remind the Committee again of my interest as chair of Assured Food Standards, commonly known as Red Tractor—a world-leading food chain assurance scheme used, in some form, by every major retailer and food service operator in the UK. It is owned by the entire food chain and allows the free flow of certified food and drink across the UK.

Part 5 of the Bill, particularly Clause 35 on marketing standards, is very important and wide-ranging, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said during discussion on the previous group. It permits the Government, with only the safeguard of an affirmative resolution procedure, to make regulations of a stunningly wide kind, from the definition of agricultural products, their labelling, packaging and claimed attributes, to the farming methods used. These are backed up by highly intrusive enforcement powers, such as powers of entry, inspection, seizure and monetary penalties. Clearly, much of this activity was previously regulated in Brussels. We need powers to operate in the new world beyond the carryover provisions in previous Brexit legislation.

However, as someone concerned with setting and improving standards, farm and factory inspection, and generating consumer awareness and support for British produce—we cover everything except eggs and fish, for historical reasons—I would like to hear much more from the Minister on his intentions. All assurance schemes, such as the RSPCA, Soil Association, LEAF and any devolved variants, have an interest in such plans. However, as the largest such scheme, assuring over £14 billion of British food and drink, and with regular inspections by UKAS-accredited bodies underpinning safety, traceability, animal welfare and environmental protection, we have the biggest interest.

We can also contribute most to future success directly and as agents of government bodies such as the Environment Agency. We can help to promote export success, and I know from operating around the world that, especially in Asia, certified standards are very important after decades of food safety problems in certain markets. We can be the flagship of British food and farming. Without EU country of origin labelling rules we can promote it better, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, said among his wise words.

Some of this is in the realm of developing policy, and we all await the Dimbleby findings with great impatience. However, my amendment is designed to require a proper consultation process before new regulations are made on marketing standards, and a report to Parliament summarising the responses.

In his comments on the previous group, the Minister suggested that the requirement to consult arises in food law already and would bite here. That is helpful, but many of us, coming at these provisions from different angles, as we do, would like to see a provision here too, given the scale and breadth of the powers proposed, which could make or break many rural food or drink operators.

I would also like confirmation that impact assessments will be made and published on such draft regulations. This seemed to be the helpful response that the Minister gave to the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, and my noble friend Lord Lindsay at Second Reading.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering
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My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on moving this amendment. The Red Tractor has much to commend it; I expressed one or two reservations about it but I fully endorse the call for a consultation on the regulations. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will look favourably on the amendment.

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Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait Lord Gardiner of Kimble
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her amendment. Before any changes are made to the marketing standards, stakeholder engagement and public consultation will need to take place. Any organisation which represents the interests of the UK agriculture industry will be given the opportunity to put forward their views.

I say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox of Newport, that marketing standards are covered by food law and a duty to consult is contained in Article 9 of Regulation 178/2002. This regulation will become retained EU law via the powers in the EU withdrawal Act. The regulation states:

“There shall be open and transparent public consultation, directly or through representative bodies, during the preparation, evaluation and revision of food law, except where the urgency of the matter does not allow it.”

It is the procedure that a summary of the responses to the consultation will be published on GOV.UK within 12 weeks of the consultation closing.

Any statutory instruments made using the power will also be accompanied by an Explanatory Memorandum and a proportionate analysis or full regulatory impact assessment where net direct cost to business is above £5 million. The impact assessment will provide the rationale for government intervention, details of all the options considered and the expected costs and benefits, particularly for businesses. With that reassurance, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe [V]
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I thank noble Lords for their support in this short debate. I think that there is a general feeling that consultation on new rules and regulations is extremely important. The Minister has helpfully acknowledged that and pointed out that some provisions already exist that may give us most of what we want. I would like to study this, because the wording that he gave us suggested that it was consultation either generally or with representative bodies, and that where there was urgency there would not be consultation. Given the breadth and scale of the powers that we are talking about in this Bill—I focused on marketing standards, but it may go more broadly—we should return to the issue of what the right consultation provisions are. However, in view of the helpful comments that have been made and the lateness of the hour, I am happy to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 257 withdrawn.