MPs defeat bid to bolster legal safeguards against cheap food imports
A bid to create new legal safeguards against cheap low-quality food imports within the government’s flagship Agriculture Bill has been defeated in the House of Commons.
Food and farming campaigners had backed Lords amendments to the bill, including one which sought to ensure that food products imported under post-Brexit trade deals were produced to the same quality, animal welfare and environmental standards required of British farmers.
Several backbench Tory MPs – including Mid Norfolk’s George Freeman and Waveney’s Peter Aldous – rebelled against the government to vote for the amendment, but it was defeated by 332 votes to 279. All other Norfolk and Suffolk MPs voted along party lines.
The government argued that the amendment was unnecessary, as the nation’s current import and food safety standards are already enshrined in existing legislation, and the change could jeopardise trade deals with other countries where UK standards may not be appropriate.
But despite repeated promises from ministers that the UK’s high farming standards would not be undermined by any import deals, critics fear that the lack of a legally-binding commitment in the Agriculture Bill will leave the door open to sub-standard foods such as chlorinated chicken or hormone-injected beef – produced using methods which are illegal here, so exposing British farmers to unfair competition.
Mr Freeman, the only Norfolk MP to speak in the debate, said: “This should be a hugely exciting opportunity for us to set out an ambition to lead globally, to use our trade leverage to promote fair trade around the world, to give our farmers a level playing field, to embrace variable tariffs to help make sure that we support growers around the world to follow the standards we need them to embrace.
“Imagine if we used our tariffs variably, to say we won’t accept food that breaches our minimum standards – we will low-tariff decent food but we will zero-tariff food produced in ways that we know we need as a global community.
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“The truth is we can talk about standards, but if we expose farmers and growers to imports coming in at a lower price because they are not fulfilling those standards, they will not be able to compete and we will be throwing away the opportunity of a great industry being able to lead the world.”
READ MORE: OPINION: We need our MPs to stand up for farming now more than everFarming minister Victoria Prentis said: “As I have said many times, our current import standards are enshrined in existing legislation.
“They include a ban on importing beef produced using artificial growth hormones and poultry that has been washed with chlorine. Any changes to that legislation would need to be brought before parliament.
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“One of my concerns is that the amendment would require other countries to abide by exactly the regulations that we have in this country. Those might not be appropriate because of climate, for example, or the way a country is physically. Our hedgerow regulation, for example, would look fairly odd in parts of Africa, but that is just one example.
“From rules on nitrates to rules on hedgerows, our standards are sometimes bound to differ from those abroad.
“Given that uncertainty, I am concerned that the amendments could jeopardise the 19 currently unsigned agreements that we are seeking to roll over. Trade, of course, already takes place under those agreements, with existing import requirements met. Unpicking those and demanding the numerous extra conditions in the amendments could upset the current deals if partners refused and walked away. In the worst-case scenario, that could affect whisky exports to Canada, worth £96m, potato exports to Egypt, worth £30m, and milk powder exports to Algeria, worth £21m.”
READ MORE: Post-Brexit trade deals will protect region’s farmers, minister pledgesLabour’s shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard replied: “If the government are serious about keeping their manifesto promise to safeguard standards, they should put that guarantee into law. If that promise was good enough for the Conservative manifesto, why is it not good enough for the Agriculture Bill, this government’s flagship piece of legislation on food and farming?
“I say to the minister that refusing to put that piece of the manifesto into law raises the question as to whether that part of the manifesto was truly meant and whether that promise can be believed.”
The bill represents the biggest shake-up in farming policy for a generation as the nation leaves the EU and its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which has previously governed how the industry is regulated and funded.
Another Lords amendment, which aimed to increase parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals by strengthening the role of recently-created Trade and Agriculture Commission, was discarded without debate as it was deemed by deputy speaker Nigel Evans to “impose a charge on the public revenue that is not authorised by the money resolution passed by this House on 3 February”.