Exiting the European Union (Agriculture) Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

Exiting the European Union (Agriculture)

David Rutley Excerpts
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.

Break in Debate

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).