Government finally bows to pressure to strengthen scrutiny of import standards

After months of intensifying pressure from all angles, the Government has finally agreed to new legislation to give farmers a stronger voice in UK trade policy.

On Sunday, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss announced she is extending the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC), and placing it on a full statutory footing

This followed a move on Friday by the government to table an amendment to the Agriculture Bill, to bolster parliamentary scrutiny of free trade agreements.

This will place a duty on the Government to report to Parliament on whether, or to what extent, commitments in new Free Trade Agreements relating to agricultural goods are consistent with maintaining UK levels of statutory protection in relation to human, animal and plant life and health; animal welfare; and environmental protection.

The moves, ahead of the return of the Agriculture Bill to the Commons this week, represent a welcome change of direction by the Government, which had long resisted calls – led by the NFU and other industry voices, but with backing from animal welfare and environmental organisations, opposition parties, various celebrities, media campaigns and the public – to toughen up the Agriculture Bill to ensure more scrutiny of Trade deals.

In October, Lord Curry’s amendment to the Bill added in the House of Lords to strengthen the remit of the TAC and give parliament more scrutiny over future trade deals did not even make it to a vote. The amendment was promptly reinserted into the Bill in the House of Lords the following week.

Trade and Agriculture Commission

The TAC was initially launched for a six-month period in July to bring together voices from across the sector and report back to inform top-level trade policy and negotiations.

Since then, it has heard from dozens of experts on farming, animal welfare, the environment and trade, called for evidence from hundreds of key voices across the industry, as well as engaging local farmers, producers, businesses and MPs across the UK through a series of virtual regional roadshows.

Ms Truss said, as Britain prepares to put into statute the trade deal struck with Japan and moves closer to becoming a fully-fledged trading nation, the Government has decided to extend the Commission and give it a more active role through a new legislative underpinning, to be reviewed every three years.

It 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. This report will be laid in Parliament before the start of the 21-day scrutiny period under the terms of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act.

The move will allow Parliamentarians access to independent and expert advice when reviewing the impact of each trade deal on farming.

High standards

Ms Truss said: “I want deals that deliver for British farmers and help them sell more brilliant produce around the world. I will never sign up to anything that threatens their ability to compete, or that undermines their high standards.

“Our trade policy is deeply rooted in British values – democracy, the rule of law, human rights and a fierce commitment to high food and farming standards. Any deal that does not abide by those values or deliver for vital industries like agriculture will remain firmly on the shelf.

“The Trade and Agriculture Commission is an important part of our vision for a values-led and value-generating trade policy. It is about putting British farming at the heart of our trade agenda, and ensuring the interests of farmers and consumers are promoted and advanced as we move closer to becoming an independent trading nation on January 1.”

Defra Secretary George Eustice, said: “By putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing, we are ensuring that the voices of our farmers, as well as those of consumers and key environmental and animal welfare groups, continue to be heard while we are in the process of scrutinising future trade deals.”

TAC chair Tim Smith said: “From a standing start in July, the Trade and Agriculture Commission has been able to cover a huge amount of ground and I know that it will play a key role in establishing independent scrutiny of Britain’s new trade deals. It’s good to know that our contribution is being recognised in this way.

NFU President, Minette Batters said: “The decision to extend the Trade and Agriculture Commission and put it on a statutory footing in order that it can report on any new trade deals for scrutiny in parliament will be hugely welcomed by Britain’s farmers.

“This demonstrates the government’s commitment to not only safeguarding our standards of production in future trade deals but demonstrates an ambition to be global leaders in animal welfare and environmental protection. We look forward to working with the Department for International Trade and Defra in our shared ambition to export high quality.”

Interim report

In the meantime, the commission will continue to report to Ms Truss and will continue with the report it is currently producing, which will advise on:

  • Trade policies the Government should adopt to secure opportunities for UK farmers, to ensure that animal welfare, food production and environmental standards are not undermined and to identify new export opportunities.
  • Advancing and protecting British consumer interests and those of developing countries.
    How the UK engages the WTO to build a coalition that helps advance higher animal welfare standards across the world.
  • Developing trade policy that identifies and opens up new export opportunities for the UK agricultural industry – in particular for SMEs – and that benefits the UK economy as a whole.
  • The Commission is publishing an interim report shortly, and the full report will be published in February 2021 and presented to Parliament.

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About The Author

Editor of LBM titles Pig World and Farm Business and group editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer. National Pig Association's webmaster. Previously political editor at Farmers Guardian for many years and also worked Farmers Weekly. Occasional farming media pundit. Brought up on a Leicestershire farm, now work from a shed in the garden in Oxfordshire. Big fan of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers. Occasional cricketer.