MP vows to continue food standards battle after rebelling in Commons votes

Mid Norfolk's George Freeman was one of only six Tory MPs to vote against the government on a Lords

Mid Norfolk's George Freeman was one of only six Tory MPs to vote against the government on a Lords amendment to the Agriculture Bill. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

A Norfolk MP was one of only six Tory backbenchers to rebel against the government by voting for additional safeguards against substandard food imports to be included in the Agriculture Bill.

MPs have voted against a second Lords amendment to the Agriculture Bill which sought to ensure impor

MPs have voted against a second Lords amendment to the Agriculture Bill which sought to ensure imported food products had to meet the same food quality, animal welfare and environmental standards required of British farmers. Picture: Chris Hill - Credit: Chris Hill

The House of Commons agreed for the second time to overturn a Lords amendment which sought to ensure UK farmers were not undermined by post-Brexit trade deals, by requiring all imported foodstuffs to meet the same benchmarks for animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety demanded of producers in this country.

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman was among only six Conservative representatives to vote for the amendment, which was defeated by 331 votes to 272.

Instead, MPs backed a government amendment to increase parliamentary scrutiny of free trade agreements and for extra detail on how measures are consistent with maintaining UK standards.

Separately, the government has also announced it would put the recently-created Trade and Agriculture Commission on a full statutory footing “giving farmers a stronger voice in UK trade policy”. The remit of the commission is being extended past its previous fixed term and will produce a report on the impact on animal welfare and agriculture of each free trade deal the government signs after the end of the EU transition period on January 1 2021.

Mr Freeman, who also voted for a similar Lords amendment which was defeated last month, said the food standards battle would now move to the Trade Bill debate, where he would be pushing for a “proper impact assessment” for all trade deals, to explore variable tariffs as an incentive for higher production standards, and “proper parliamentary scrutiny”.

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“This is a good moment, and not just because government members get to honour our manifesto commitments, which were sincerely made and taken by the public,” he said.

“It is also crucial for us to make Brexit a moment when we take back control of trade so that we can protect UK standards, ensure a level playing field for our farmers and go further by using our market leverage as one of the great markets of the world to promote UK leadership in modern farming: low carbon, low water, low plastic, low input, high productivity farming — the very farming that we need to be exporting around the world.

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“To that end, we need to be looking in the Trade Bill at the use of variable tariffs to promote the export of British agricultural leadership around the world.”

READ MORE: How can farms ride out the ‘perfect storm’ of Brexit, climate change and coronavirus?The government’s flagship Agriculture Bill returned to the Commons this week after becoming embroiled in a legislative tussle known as parliamentary “ping pong”, as the two houses have been unable to agree on the controversial issue of food standards, amid continuing concerns over products such as chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef entering the UK market.

Government ministers argued that sufficient protections are already in place, and that enforcing additional conditions could jeopardise future trade discussions in countries where British standards may not be appropriate.

Speaking as MPs considered the latest Lords amendments, environment minister Victoria Prentis said: “It’s proved very difficult to find the right form of legislative words to protect our standards.

“It’s important that we comply with WTO (World Trade Organisation) rules and that we don’t impose impossible conditions on future trading partners.

“I feel that following gargantuan efforts of many people, we have got to a sensible compromise.

“My concern about (Lords) amendment 16b is that it would cause problems as drafted for our negotiators and impose burdensome administrative measures on our trading partners.

“Demonstrating equivalence of standards is a complex and technical task which involves delving deeply into the cow sheds and chicken huts and legislatures of other nations. I feel that our amendment in lieu is a better way to achieve the goal.”

She added: “We stood on a clear manifesto commitment that in all of our trade negotiations we wouldn’t compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare or food standards.”

The bill will return to the House of Lords for further scrutiny.

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