MPs ‘missed opportunity’ to secure vital safeguards for food standards, say farmers
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Frustrated East Anglian farmers said MPs missed a crucial opportunity to safeguard their industry against cheap, low-quality food imports as the government’s Agriculture Bill progressed through the Commons last night.
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.
During the bill’s report stage debate, senior Conservatives led the push for an amendment – supported by opposition MPs as well as farming and environmental bodies – which would have guaranteed that the UK’s high environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards would have to be met by any imported produce entering the country under post-Brexit trade deals.
But the amendment was defeated – with all of Norfolk’s Tory MPs voting against it along party lines, except Mid Norfolk’s George Freeman, who didn’t vote.
That has angered many of the county’s farmers, who said it would have ensured a “level playing field”, and prevented them being exposed to competition from cheap foods produced to lower standards than are accepted in the UK, such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef.
However, Defra ministers argued that the amendment could compromise future trade negotiations, and was unnecessary as all EU import standards will be converted into domestic law by the end of the December 2020 transition period.
Rachel Carrington, regional director for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) in East Anglia, said: “Last night’s result was a missed opportunity to secure vital safeguards for the high standards of food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection that the British public value so highly.
“The NFU joined with a huge coalition of other organisations – including the RSPB, RSPCA and the National Trust – to make a compelling case against allowing in food imports produced to standards that would be illegal in the UK. Thousands of NFU members also contacted MPs to ask them to speak up for British food and farming.
“A trade policy that undermines our farmers will mean a common goal of a more prosperous, sustainable and nature-friendly food and farming sector will be much harder to achieve.
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“However, there is still time to amend this crucial legislation before it becomes law and we will be doing all we can to ensure it delivers for farming, the environment and our rural communities.”
NFU Norfolk county chairman Nick Deane added: “It’s a disappointing result but the debate left the government in no doubt about the strength of feeling that exists on this issue.
“It’s now up to all of us who care about our high food and farming standards to continue to lobby our MPs, seeking their support while this bill continues its passage through Parliament.”
READ MORE: Coronavirus: Government urged to delay post-Brexit farm subsidy cuts by a yearDuring the Commons debate, environment minister Victoria Prentis warned of “unintended consequences” of amending the bill and reiterated the Tory election manifesto pledge that UK food standards would not be undermined during trade negotiations.
“I’d like to reassure colleagues that all food coming into this country will be required to meet existing import requirements,” she said.
“At the end of the transition period, the Withdrawal Act will convert all EU standards into domestic law.
“This will include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in beef. Nothing apart from potable water may be used to clean chicken carcasses and any changes to these standards would have to come before this Parliament.
“We will be doing our own inspections to ensure that these import conditions are met.”
The amendment was defeated by 277 votes to 328, although it later emerged that some MPs, including chancellor Rishi Sunak, had mistakenly voted the wrong way via the new electronic system – but deputy speaker Dame Eleanor Laing said this would not have affected the result.
The bill eventually cleared the Commons after receiving a third reading by 360 votes to 211, majority 149.
It will undergo further scrutiny in the House of Lords at a later date.