Sustain: Better Food Britain: The legal milestones ahead

The UK’s departure from the European Union has profound implications for our food, farming and fishing. The Sustain alliance Campaign for a Better Food Britain seeks to ensure the best possible outcome for the UK’s food, farming and fishing industries, for citizens and the environment.

Taken together, the food industry is the UK’s biggest employer, and our economy, as well as our health and well-being, depend on it. Working on behalf of UK citizens, the Westminster Parliament and Devolved Administrations must use new post-Brexit freedoms to take back control of our food, farming and fishing.

In June 2017, several pieces of landmark legislation were announced by the Government, of which four are of special significance to food, farming and fishing - the Repeal Bill, Agriculture Bill, Fisheries Bill and Trade Bill. These are the subject of this briefing, highlighting issues of concern to the Sustain alliance. Sustain is also working with its members and others to develop a new Food Act, to set the legal and strategic framework for a Better Food Britain.

 

1. Repeal Bill

The Repeal Bill must effectively convert all existing European law relating to food, farming and fishing, including principles and rights, into domestic law on the statute books. This must include food safety and quality standards; consumer rights and protections; environmental protection; workers’ rights; measures to tackle trafficking and modern slavery; labour conditions and skills; sustainable international development; organic food and farming standards; animal welfare; animal and plant health; chemical and pesticide controls; poverty and inequality reduction; and access to justice. The Repeal Bill must:

  • Retain legal principles that underpin good environmental protection, such as the precautionary principle, the principle that preventive action should be taken, that environmental damage be rectified at source, that the polluter should pay, and access to justice; also that animals are sentient beings.
  • Make provision for important citizen rights to be re-instated in UK law that will be lost through the repeal of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
  • Confirm that any substantive changes to UK policies and standards, before or after Brexit, must be made by primary legislation only, giving a full and proper role to parliamentary scrutiny, on behalf of UK citizens and, where relevant, scrutiny by devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland.
  • Limit delegated powers, including Henry VIII powers, strictly to the purpose of faithful conversion, with a statement on the face of the bill that powers cannot be used for purposes beyond faithful conversion, and with a time limit or ‘sunset clause’ for the exercise of such powers.
  • Set out new arrangements for good food governance, to ensure the continued provision by suitable organisations of: monitoring, measuring, ensuring proper implementation, checking compliance, enforcing, reviewing and reporting, co-ordinating and publicising. These must have adequate resources, appropriate independence, relevant expertise and sufficient powers, to deal with, for example food safety, animal and plant health, pesticides, food traceability, food fraud and environmental protection.

Through the Repeal Bill process, the government should also commit to continued promotion of important strategies and plans on which the resilience of our food system depends, and policies and resources to implement them effectively, such as (but not limited to) strategies to protect pollinators, the strategy to reduce unnecessary use of antibiotics in farming, and the strategy for protecting and improving soil.

2. Agriculture Bill

The Agriculture Bill must secure a fairer, greener deal for farmers. Under a new framework for all nations, anew structure of farm support should reward farmers and land managers for protecting our health as well as precious biodiversity and natural assets, such as climate, soil health, pollinators, water, natural resistance to plant and animal disease cultivated by better farm husbandry, and flood protection.

The Bill should set out commitments to support sustainable rural economies, as well as maintain and enhance support for organic farming to expand domestic organic production so that more UK demand can be met by UK farmers, alongside export growth. Government policy in parallel must make sure that all companies in the supply chain play fair, to support stable trading and decent livelihoods for farmers, at home and abroad, e.g. by extending the remit of the Grocery Code Adjudicator.

The Agriculture Bill should also reinstate the English bargaining body, an Agriculture Wages & Standards Board (noting that Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland have such bodies) to improve prospects and progression for very low-wage workers.

See further details of the policy framework in Beyond 2020: New Farm Policy: www.sustainweb.org/publications/beyond_2020_new_farm_policy/

3. Fisheries Bill

The Fisheries Bill must save our seas by being set out explicitly as a Sustainable Fisheries Act. It must ensure that all UK and shared fish stocks (including the most economically important species) are fished at scientifically agreed sustainable levels (at or below maximum sustainable yield), and guarantee to continue the hard-won ban on discarding perfectly edible fish. See our thoughts on achieving a sustainable outcome for fishing at: www.sustainweb.org/blogs/jun17_fisheries_bill/

Additional principles for Farming and Fisheries

For both the Agriculture and Fisheries Bills, the government should also commit to:

  • Investigating and publishing an assessment of the impact on labour availability for the food, farming and fishing sectors under different migration control scenarios; and establishing a process, with full consultation, for addressing any shortages in skills and workers
  • Ensuring that existing competences are fully respected for each national government in the nations that make up the UK. This should also be mindful of the need for shared management of common resources like fish and shellfish. It will be essential to have a consistency of approach both domestically and with neighbouring countries managing and benefiting from shared resources.
  • Guaranteeing better food standards for public institutions. The government should require 100% compliance with hospital food standards (currently only half meet basic food standards) to ensure fresh, healthy and appetising food is served in hospitals, to limit the hospital retail sale of foods high in fat, salt and sugar, and to support farmers with sustainable food-buying standards. The government should also require all schools to meet healthy eating and sustainable food standards, and continue to improve implementation of such standards in Whitehall, HM prisons and the armed forces. The government must guard against such high standards being weakened or removed by future trade deals.

4. Trade Bill

The Trade Bill must make future UK trade deals open, transparent and accountable to Parliament, to ensure that the UK’s important principles and protections are not ‘sold off’. The Trade Bill must establish a democratic and transparent process for the negotiation and ratification of new trade deals that gives MPs the right to scrutinise, amend, accept or reject deals that have been negotiated by the government.

The Trade Bill should set out the UK’s approach to new development-friendly trade policy, for example by ensuring that UK trade and investment policies are compatible with international commitments on the environment, climate change, human rights and UN Sustainable Development Goals. It should also protect the UK’s existing approach to development-friendly trade policy by guaranteeing current preferential trading arrangements with developing countries, with the UK’s purchases of goods worth about £34 billion from the world’s poorest countries. Further, it should ensure trade agreements do not prevent the world’s poorest countries from developing their manufacturing and service sectors.

5. The need for a new Food Act

Sustain is coordinating the Campaign for a Better Food Britain, which is calling for a new Food Act. The remit of the Food Act will be affected by the progress – or otherwise – of securing important principles in the Agriculture, Fisheries and Trade Bills (above). However, the overarching aim is to set the strategy and legal framework that would enhance the UK’s tradition and reputation for world-leading food, farming and fishing standards. It will also seek to prevent the UK being drawn into a race to the bottom to weaken food safety and quality, nutritional quality, environmental protection, workers’, citizens and consumer rights and protections, and food information and labelling. We must build confidence, and help British food producers tap into markets for high quality food, at home and abroad.

Originally published: https://www.sustainweb.org/blogs/jul17_better_food_britain_legal_milestones_ahead/

Sam Coates