The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will need to use emergency procedures to push through some of the regulatory changes needed to prepare for Brexit, its permanent secretary has said.
Tamara Finkelstein told MPs on Monday that Defra had passed 126 of the 137 statutory instruments – secondary legislation needed to prepare for a post-Brexit regulatory regime – that it needs to pass before the UK’s deadline for leaving the EU on 31 October. She said 11 remained and could only be put in place via an accelerated procedure.
Finkelstein was giving evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee about her department’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit. Defra has one of the highest Brexit-related workloads in Whitehall, with around 80% of its work affected by the UK leaving the bloc.
But with parliament suspended for the next five weeks, there will not be time for MPs to debate the remaining 11 SIs before Brexit. Instead, Finkelstein said, “There will be urgent procedures to put those in place and some of the debates will happen after the end of October.”
Appearing alongside Finkelstein was environment secretary Theresa Villiers, who said the EU Withdrawal Act means SIs necessary for Brexit can be passed using such an “accelerated procedure”.
Parliament’s controversial prorogation, which means MPs will not meet until a Queen’s Speech on 14 October, will also mean that the agriculture and fisheries bills, which are both integral to Defra’s policy work, are likely to fall, the MPs heard.
Finkelstein had previously said the agriculture bill must pass by next spring to give the department time to put a planned overhaul of farming subsidies in place. However, she told the committee that Defra could “just about incorporate” a longer delay to stay on track with the programme. Summer 2020 would be the “absolute deadline” by which the bill must be passed.
Asked why the government was allowing two bills it had deemed flagship legislation to fall, Villiers told the committee: “We need a Queen’s speech to get on with legislation.”
And there are other areas where the department will struggle to be ready in time for Brexit, the MPs heard.
For example, a recruitment campaign between Defra and industry means the UK now has just over 1,000 vets available to certify animal products for export to the EU after Brexit – a 50% increase since February. Finkelstein said farmers were now “quite confident that they will have the necessary vets” to cope with a no-deal Brexit, but admitted that it was difficult to estimate exactly how many were needed.
Finkelstein said there would be a “high-quality, robust scheme” and people in place at the Animal and Plant Health Agency to process these checks in time for 31 October. However, she said a digital platform “for behind the scenes of what the user sees might not be quite in place by the end of October”.
Villiers acknowledged that there were “risks” when pressed on how exports would be affected if the department had underestimated how many vets were needed. She said there were particular “capacity issues” in Northern Ireland, which Defra was working with its counterpart, working with its Northern Ireland counterpart DAERA to tackle.
Other areas of risks discussed during the hearing included UK farmers being put at a disadvantage because of the government’s decision not to add import tariffs to EU produce immediately after Brexit.
Quizzed on whether British sheep farmers could suffer a 30% drop in the price of lamb if a no-deal Brexit leads to the UK trading with EU states on WTO terms, as predicted by the National Farmers’ Union, Villiers said the government was “stand ready to intervene to support sectors which are part negatively affected”, but said it would be “inappropriate” to make commitments at this point.
Divergence of standards
During the session, Villiers also confirmed earlier comments by the prime minister that environmental standards in the UK are likely to diverge from those in the EU after Brexit.
Asked whether the UK will uphold its promise not to lower environmental standards currently mandated by the EU after Brexit, Villers said the UK was “committed to maintaining the same high standards and outcomes”. However, she added: “the means by which we deliver those outcomes and standards may diverge from the EU over time”.
Villiers was responding to questions about a letter sent by Boris Johnson to EU Council president Donald Tusk in August, in which he said: “Although we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU.”
Villiers said it would be “misguided” to think that the EU held all the answers on how best to regulate environmental protections, and that “There may well be mechanisms that are better suited and better targeted to our domestic circumstances.”
The MPs also asked Villers how the government would ensure the Office of Environmental Protection – the body it is setting up to maintain environment standards post-Brexit – would be truly independent of the department. Villiers said further details would be announced in the upcoming environment bill, but said it would have the “substantial degree of independent responsibility the committee wants”.