Peers have 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 in its return to the Lords last night, the Government was defeated on both votes, with a number of Conservative peers backing the industry.
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.
A revised version of 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.
Last week, Farming Minister Victoria Prentis said there was no need to legislate on the issue, insisting existing legislation was sufficient to protect against lower standard imports and parliament already had sufficient scrutiny powers. She urged MPs, farmers and other groups campaigning on the issue, and the general to trust the Government on this issue.
But during last night’s debate, Lord Grantchester said protections for the UK’s high food standards need to be included in the Agriculture Bill.
Future standards can be changed through technical statutory orders. We seek to put in primary legislation what the government has claimed is in the Withdrawal Act,” he said.
Lord Curry said: “The fear of cheap imported food undermining our standards of production as a result of trade deals that have not been adequately scrutinised has united all key stakeholders from the entire farming community.”
“They range from the NFU and the CLA, to vets, chefs, environmental bodies including Greener UK and Sustain, and to the general public. Over 1 million voters have signed a petition.
“All of them are deeply concerned, and I cannot understand why the Government continue to resist this pressure and have not responded accordingly. That is fundamentally a bad ambition in relation to our aspirations as a country—a country trading in the global market outside the European Union.”
Defra minister Lord Gardiner said the government was determined to have ‘a robust and positive relationship with the people who are custodians and stewards of the land’.
“That’s why the relationship we need to forge through the Agriculture Bill and the environmental land management system is absolutely about that collaboration.”
The Bill will now return to the House of Commons once again, with renewed pressure on the Government to accept the amendments.
NFU president Minette Batters has urged the Prime Minister to back British farming and reverse the Government’s entrenched position on food import standards as the row escalated.
She met Boris Johnson in Downing Street last week to push the case, particularly for further scrutiny of trade deals. Talks continued between the NFU and Downing Street, as the Bill headed to the Lords again this week.
Mrs Batters said discussions so far were ‘positive, but patience across the country is running out’, urging the Government to ‘Back British Farming’ by giving the necessary scrutiny powers to the Trade and Agriculture Commission. “The future of British food and farming is at stake,” she said.
Commenting on the Lords vote, she said: “The House of Lords has once again shown its support for British farming by passing amendments to the Agriculture Bill which include proper safeguards against food imports that would undermine our high standards, demonstrating the strength of feeling and support on this issue.
“It is incredibly important that the government’s commitment to safeguarding UK farm standards is upheld throughout trade negotiations, that the Trade and Agriculture Commission is strengthened and that parliamentary scrutiny of future trade deals is enhanced. There is enormous public support behind these principles and I would urge MPs to recognise this when these amendments return to the House of Commons.”
The NPA has described last week’s Commons vote on the Agriculture Bill intended as a ‘massive missed opportunity’.
NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said: “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.”