Hundreds of constituents have written to me in the past few weeks expressing their concern about the Agriculture Bill, as it was debated in the House of Commons chamber last night (12th October) with consideration of Lords’ Amendments.
I am very grateful to all those who wrote in wanting to save our standards and who share my deep, deep concern over the direction of travel of food standards going forward.
Together with my Labour colleagues, I voted to back British farmers and put Britain’s high food and farming standards into law.
To echo Keir Starmer, I want our country to produce the best food in the world, where our farmers compete on the basis of quality and are not undermined by producers working to lower standards elsewhere.
The UK needs to lead the way in quality, high standards, ethical treatment of animals and environmental protections in all aspects of food production. No-one wants lower quality food on our plates.
Tory MPs have consistently voted down Labour attempts to use this bill or the trade bill, which is also progressing through parliament, to enshrine in law the country’s high environmental protections, animal welfare and food standards.
I made this point over and over again when I was on the Trade Bill Committee, and was left stunned by the Government’s intransigence as they voted down amendment after amendment that would have enshrined basic standards into UK law. This is an affront to our farmers and consumers.
Conservative MPs had a clear choice last night: they could have either shown they are on the side of our farmers and quality produce, or they can continue to play political games and risk trading away our hard won standards and values.
I also agree that the trade and agriculture commission needs to “have teeth” to assess each trade deal against core standards and ensure parliamentary oversight, as recommended in the government’s own national food strategy.
A recent survey found a significant majority of the British public do not want food produced to lower standards to be allowed on sale in the UK, and several supermarkets have committed not to stock lower standard imported food.
It is not just Remainers saying this either – according to research by Unchecked, most young leave voters want to increase or keep current standards, with environmental standards a key priority. Importing food produced to lower standards, which harms animal welfare, goes against the values of UK consumers who want to do the right thing by the environment – government policy should help them to do so.
And the chorus of voices in the food sector who are concerned about the future of food standards in our trade policy is deafening.
The NFU have expressed similar concerns, noting that in our current and forthcoming trade negotiations, other countries will not only urge the UK to follow their own sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS) arrangements, which in many instances diverge from current UK practice, but will also resist any suggestion that their own producers meet the production standards and additional costs required of UK farmers.
Furthermore, outside of any trade deals it is generally not possible under World Trade Organisation (WTO) obligations for governments to restrict imports on the basis of production standards.
This leads them to the conclusion that “it is hard to see how trade liberalisation will not lead inevitably to an increase in food imports that are produced in ways that would be illegal in the UK.”
In addition, the British Poultry Council believe that “If food produced to lower standards is allowed to enter the British market, it will create a two-tier food system, in which only the affluent can afford to eat British food grown to British standards. This is unacceptable.”
On animal welfare standards, it is important to understand that this is not a mere ethical luxury or ‘nicety’. Friends of the Earth have pointed out that intensive farming with few welfare protections. is associated with deforestation, local pollution, poor workers’ rights and high emissions. Research suggests a link between poor welfare standards and increased risk of zoonotic (i.e. transmission from animals to humans) diseases such as Covid-19 and biodiversity loss.
The Government has repeatedly assured us that they do not want to see regression in this area. Michael Gove committed on multiple occasions to ensuring the UK was a global leader on animal welfare. This promise was reiterated in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, and by George Eustice on January 30: “We are clear that in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
And contrary to some commentator’s views, it is not incompatible with global trade rules. Trade rules enshrine the right of nations to regulate to achieve public policy goals, and to require that goods and services reach specific standards to qualify for import, as long as these requirements are applied fairly.
So I simply cannot understand why the Tories did not join me and my Labour colleagues last night, back British farmers and amend this deeply flawed Bill. It is a huge missed opportunity that will have dire consequences.
Rest assured that, as your MP, I will always vote and fight to save our standards. This fight will continue with the Trade Bill when it returns from the House of Lords.