All 1 Debates between Lord Krebs and Lord Hamilton of Epsom

Mon 6th Mar 2023

Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill

Debate between Lord Krebs and Lord Hamilton of Epsom
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 129 and 131 in this group in my name and those of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and my noble friend Lady Boycott, who, I am sorry to say, are not in their places. These two amendments are about transparency, accountability, and scrutiny, so, in a way, they follow neatly from some of the points the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, was making a few moments ago.

Transparency, accountability and scrutiny are surely not contentious concepts so I hope that the Government would agree and therefore sign up to these amendments. Amendment 129, very simply, would require the Government to seek advice from the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland as to whether any proposed changes to the regulations will reduce food safety or other consumer protections in relation to food.

Noble Lords will recall that the Food Standards Agency is the non-ministerial department in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with responsibility for food safety and consumer protection in relation to food. It would surely be bizarre beyond belief not to consult the relevant department and its Scottish counterpart before making any changes to retained EU law. The importance of this underlined by referring back to a previous debate in Committee. I quote from Hansard. I said on 23 February that

“I will quote what Professor Susan Jebb, the chair of the Food Standards Agency, said on 2 November last year:

‘In the FSA, we are clear that we cannot simply sunset the laws on food safety and authenticity without a decline in UK food standards and a significant risk to public health’.”

I then said:

“According to the government department in charge of food safety and standards, the sunset clause is putting public health at risk. There is no point in the Minister trying to deny it, because that is what a government department is saying.”—[Official Report, 23/2/23; col. 1832.]

I will now quote the Minister’s reply because she did indeed deny it by saying:

“Let me assure noble Lords that any decision on REUL reform will not come at the expense of our high standards.”

She added that

“our commitment to not reducing consumer protection remains in place.”—[Official Report, 23/2/23; cols. 1856-57.]

Here you have it in black and white. The head of the relevant government department, Professor Susan Jebb, says that we cannot sunset EU-derived laws without sacrificing consumer safety and other protections. The Minister told this House on 23 February that, in effect, that is a load of rubbish. Who would you believe? I know where my trust lies. It is with the department that has the responsibility and accountability for and expertise in protecting consumers’ interests in relation to food. There could not be a clearer demonstration of why Amendment 129 is essential

Lest this be thought to be some sort of political point, I want to say that when I was chairman of the Food Standards Agency, with a Government of a different political complexion, Ministers were keen to rush to reassure the public on issues to do with food safety, whether it was BSE or foot and mouth disease, and I really had to stand up against pressure from Ministers and say, “No, we can’t provide reassurance on safety”. If this amendment is accepted, it will ensure that the proper expertise, lines of accountability and scrutiny are in place to review any proposed changes in food law.

I turn now to Amendment 131, which is about transparency. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, reminded noble Lords earlier in Committee, the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland published their first annual report on food safety and standards across the UK, entitled Our Food 2021, in June. Here is a quotation from the introduction:

“At a time when the UK is taking on new responsibilities for food following our departure from the European Union … consumers need strong watchdogs looking out for whether standards are being protected. This report—the first in a series to be published annually—will help us do so by providing an objective, data-driven assessment of the safety and standards of food over time.

Why us? Because the Food Standards Agency … and Food Standards Scotland … are together responsible for food standards across the whole of the UK—this is an important, long-term collaboration between our two organisations that should provide greater transparency and accountability for food quality across the four nations. This, in turn, will help us work with food businesses, local authorities and other partners to address any emerging threats or vulnerabilities.”

Amendment 131 simply seeks to put this annual report, or a slightly modified version of it, on a statutory basis. It will tell the public, businesses, the Government and others whether, as result of changes to our laws, food standards and safety are being compromised. How on earth could one object to this transparency?

As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, reminded us the other day in Committee, transparency is one of the keys to trust. It has taken years of work by the Food Standards Agency to rebuild public trust in the UK food system after the disasters of the 1990s, including BSE and salmonella in eggs. Indeed, that is why all parties supported the creation of the Food Standards Agency, so it could be a department that puts consumers’ interests first and rebuilds trust in our food system. Why would the Government wish to squander those gains now? I therefore look forward to the Minister warmly welcoming both my amendments, and to assuring us that the FSA and FSS will have the necessary resources to fulfil the duties that are implied by them. These are very modest changes to the Bill, aimed at improving it, and I hope that, if the Minister does not welcome them, he will at least agree to meet me and others to discuss the implications of not accepting them.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom Portrait Lord Hamilton of Epsom (Con)
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Will the noble Lord explain why the Government would want to compromise the health of the consuming public of this country and undermine our food exports abroad?

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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That is an extremely good question and I thank the noble Lord for asking it. That is precisely what I would say too. Therefore, if the Government do not want to risk undermining public safety or public confidence in our food businesses, and therefore our food exports, they should accept these amendments. After all, the chairman of the FSA could not have said it more clearly, and I shall just repeat it once more:

“we are clear that we cannot simply sunset the laws on food safety and authenticity without a decline in UK food standards and a significant risk to public health.”

It is not me who is saying this; it is the head of the government department with this responsibility.