Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe will leave her role as Red Tractor chair on November 12 at the end of her three-year term, following a backlash over a her failure to back amendments to the Agriculture Bill intended to strengthen import standards.
Baroness Neville-Rolfe, a former Tesco director, was appointed to the House of Lords as a Conservative Peer in October 2013 and served as a junior Minister in various departments until 2017, the year she became chairman of Assured Food Standards.
In a statement on Friday evening, she insisted, in response the criticism that has come her way in recent days, that she had always believed in ‘strong agricultural and food standards’.
Baroness Neville-Rolfe said: “I have much enjoyed my time at Red Tractor and I believe it has made much progress over the last 3 years in achieving wider recognition of its certified standards covering food safety, animal welfare and environmental protection.
“Its standards are leaders in the field internationally and together we have improved the rules and ensured better compliance. We have also successfully navigated COVID.
“I have always believed and made clear that upholding strong agricultural and food standards is in the best interests of British consumers, farmers and manufacturers. Recent comments suggesting I do not take that view are wrong and have only gained credence by ignoring clear statements by me to the contrary.
“In my view UK agricultural and food standards will be even more important post-Brexit. Over time I am sure standards will, rightly, become more rigorous.
“I warmly thank Vice-Chairman Andrew Blenkiron and the rest of the Board and CEO Jim Moseley and all the staff for their support.
“I hope and believe Red Tractor will have a successful future.”
Agriculture Bill vote
On Tuesday, peers reinserted powers to the Agriculture Bill intended to protect UK farmers and consumers from imports produced to standards not permitted in the UK under future trade deals.
Last week, amendments inserted in the House of Lords were removed as the Bill passed through the Commons. But on its return to the Lords last night, the Government was defeated on both votes.
Labour peer Lord Grantchester’s amendment ensuring agricultural and food imports meet equivalent benchmarks as British producers, including on animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety, was backed by 282 votes to 244.
Independent peer Lord Curry’s amendment to give the Trade and Agriculture Commission more powers to scrutinise trade deals and to require the secretary of state to report to Parliament on the impact of proposed future trade deals on maintaining agri-food standards, including food safety, the environment and animal welfare was backed by 278 votes to 200.
While a number of Conservative peers backed the amendments, Baroness Neville-Rolfe was not one of them. When this emerged in a Farmers Weekly article, it provoked an angry response from farmers, including calls for her resignation.
In a statement, she said she was wary that the legislation proposed in the amendments would ‘shackle our negotiators’ and that her votes were ‘based on this appreciation of the realities’.
“None of this implies that interests, including agricultural interests, should not exert pressure on the government to seek the outcomes they want. Of course they do and sometimes the government accept them,” she said.
“But trying to impose limitations by statute on the government is in my view not the best way to do it.”
But farmers were not appeased. Leicestershire farmer Joe Stanley questioned whether her position was tenable. “I despair; this undermines everything we wish to safeguard & achieve with high UK food standards – and which government claims it values,” he said, one of many comments on Twitter that questioned whether her position was tenable.