The Government’s decision to reject amendments to the Agriculture Bill that would have offered protection against lower standard imports under future trade deals has been met with disappointment across the industry and beyond.
An amendment from Labour peer Lord Grantchester, which would have required free trade deals to only allow food imports that meet UK legal standards, was rejected by 332 votes to 279, albeit with 14 Conservative rebels voting for it.
Crossbench peer Lord Curry’s amendment, which would have given the Trade and Agriculture Commission significantly more powers to scrutinise future trade agreements before they are finalised, was not selected for a vote by the Speaker.
More details on the debate HERE
The issue has generated media interest, with the Government under pressure to act from farmers, vets, environmental and animal welfare campaigners, celebrity chefs, consumer groups and the general public, after more than one million people backed the NFU import standards campaign.
NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said: “While not surprising, the Government’s refusal to back the Lords’ amendments is very disappointing and leaves the pig sector vulnerable to cheap imports.
“This is a massive missed opportunity to provide the necessary legal protection and assurance from government that our sector needs. Vague promises about protecting standards are not enough.
“The US, for example, has made it clear that is not prepared to compromise in future trade deals on issues like the use of ractopamine in pigs and sow stalls, which are still widely used in US pig production, but were banned in the UK in 1999. There are also vast differences in areas like environmental protection, piglet castration and antibiotic use.
“The Government has given no clear indication of how, in the absence of legislation, it would prevent imports of significantly cheaper pork from the US and elsewhere produced using methods that are outlawed in the UK.
“Following the UK sow stall ban in 1999, retailers continued to import large volumes of cheaper pork from the EU produced using sow stalls. The impact was catastrophic as UK producers were unable to compete and went out of business – the pig herd halved in size in just a few years. The Government must learn from previous experience and do more to ensure that history is not repeated.”
NFU President Minette Batters, who has campaigned hard on the issue, including many prominent appearance across the media this week said: “Once again the Commons has debated the Agriculture Bill without any binding commitments on how to safeguard our farmers’ high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection in our trade policy.
“While I was very heartened to hear many MPs express support for safeguarding our food standards, it was particularly disappointing that they were unable to vote on Lord Curry’s amendment that would strengthen the role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission and with it the role of Parliament to have proper scrutiny of new trade deals.
“The future of British food and farming is at stake. Without proper safeguards on future trade deals we risk seeing an increase in food imports that have been produced to standards that would be illegal here. I hope the Agriculture Bill returning to the House of Lords gives a new opportunity for the Lords to put forward an amendment that will give the Commission more teeth and enable MPs to have their say; one that can be heard by the House of Commons, with a final vote to see those safeguards put in place.”
CLA President Mark Bridgeman said: “Government Ministers have successfully convinced MPs they can be trusted to protect food production standards without the need for legislation.
“Time and again Ministers have promised to protect British farmers from a flood of cheap imports produced to animal welfare and environmental standards far below our own. They must now make good on that promise and show that such trust is well placed.
“Farmers across the country will be watching Government’s every move very closely from hereon in. The CLA will do all it can to support Government efforts to promote free trade – so long as their guarantee to uphold our standards and values is maintained permanently.”
Gareth Morgan, head of farming and land use policy at the Soil Association said; “We are very disappointed the House of Commons has rejected key amendments on import standards, climate change and pesticides in the Agriculture Bill, that has been proposed by the House of Lords.
“Putting these protections into law is vital to protect us against trade deals that could lower food production standards, threaten our environmental and climate change commitments, and undercut British farmers.
“We must go further to uphold the UK’s high standards for food and farming. We urge the House of Lords to hold their ground and send the amendments back to the Commons again to give MPs who voted against these changes a chance to rethink.”
British Veterinary Association president James Russell said: “This result is a severe blow for animal welfare and a betrayal of the Government’s own manifesto commitment to maintain and improve on health and welfare standards.
“After such a strong show of support in the Lords, it is bitterly disappointing that the majority of MPs have chosen to ignore the groundswell of public and professional feeling and have voted against a clause that would have safeguarded our own renowned standards and offered crucial protections to the reputation and livelihood of the UK’s farming industry.”