Agriculture bill: Bid to protect post-Brexit food standards rejected

Fourteen pro-farming Tory MPs rebelled in a Commons vote last night attempting to impose a legal bar preventing the government from watering down food standards. The rebels were: Peter Aldous … George Freeman … Tracey Crouch … Roger Gale … Simon Hoare … Neil Hudson … Jason McCartney … Stephen McPartland … Caroline Nokes … Neil Parish … Douglas Ross … Henry Smith … Julian Sturdy … and Theresa Villiers.


Neil Parish’s rebellion was ultimately a case of “shearing a pig”: a lot of squealing and no wool. Liz Pole

[Owl never found a Sasha quote about the “farmer next door”]

BBC News

Steak and chips

MPs have rejected the latest attempt to require imported food to meet domestic legal standards from 1 January.

They struck down a Lords amendment to the Agriculture Bill to force trade deals to meet UK animal welfare and food safety rules.

Campaigners have warned the UK could be forced to accept lower standards to secure a future US trade deal.

But Farming minister Victoria Prentis said the government was “absolutely committed to high standards”.

Existing laws would safeguard them, she told the House of Commons, adding that these were “of more use than warm words” in maintaining animal welfare, food standards and environmental protections.

The bill – designed to prepare the farming industry for when the UK no longer has to follow EU laws and rules next year – returned to the Commons on Monday following amendments by the House of Lords.

The government says EU rules banning imports of chlorine-washed chicken and other products will be automatically written into UK law once the post-Brexit transition period ends on 31 December.

But peers made a number of changes, including one which would give MPs a veto over sections in trade deals relating to food imports, which would be required to comply with “relevant domestic standards”.

They argued these changes were necessary to make it impossible for the US or other countries to export so-called chlorinated chicken or beef fattened with hormones.

However, MPs voted by 332 votes to 279 – a majority 53 – to back government plans to reject the amendment.

media captionJamie Oliver accuses the government of using “back door” secondary legislation to avoid scrutiny of post-Brexit food standards

However, Conservative MPs Sir Roger Gale and George Freeman said they would vote for the amendment to remain in the bill, saying it was in line with their party’s 2019 manifesto pledge to maintain welfare standards.

Neil Parish, the Conservative chairman of the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, told the Commons that Brexit meant UK agriculture could move in a “much more environmental direction”, including planting more trees and cutting the use of nitrates.

The country should be a “beacon” of high animal welfare and countryside-protection standards, he added.

But Conservative MP John Lamont supported the government, saying the amendments were “not in the interests” of food producers or standards and would be “bad for trade”.

Party colleague Anthony Mangnall said there had been a “huge amount of fear-mongering” over the importation of chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef, and that “has to stop”.

‘Back British farmers’

In the Commons, Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Tim Farron said the controversy over chlorinated chicken was not “about the quality of food” but the “integrity of our farming industry”.

For Labour, shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard said this was a “crucial moment for British agriculture”, adding that high standards could all be “thrown away”.

He urged the government to “show some leadership” and “back British farmers”.

The bill must include guarantees that UK farmers would not be “undercut” in post-Brexit trade deals, Mr Pollard said.

However another potential rebellion by backbench Tory MPs was avoided by the government when the deputy speaker ruled out an amendment to strengthen the new Trade and Agriculture Commission.

Speaking about this week’s votes in Parliament on the Agriculture Bill, Labour’s Constituency Spokesperson for Tiverton and Honiton, Liz Pole, said “Labour supported the Lords Amendment on keeping British standards in trade deals. On the other hand Neil Parish’s rebellion was ultimately a case of “shearing a pig”: a lot of squealing and no wool. In voting down all the Amendments – which were backed by Labour along with a broad coalition of major environmental groups and the National Farmers Union – the Conservatives have broken their word on sectoral support and Climate Action, and have failed Minette Batters’ test of “the moral compass of government” by failing to guarantee the future of British farming, British standards, British trade and British food security.”

From Today’s Western Morning News:

FARMING: Farmers took their fight on food imports to the heart of the capital yesterday, reports our Farming Editor, Athwenna Irons

Farmers taking part in a protest organised by Save British Farming in central London yesterday, as the Agriculture Bill returned to the House of Commons (Image: Aaron Chown / PA)

Farming leaders have made a last-ditch effort to safeguard Britain’s high food production and animal welfare standards from being undermined in future trade deals as the Agriculture Bill returned to the House of Commons.

Last night, MPs were granted a second chance to debate and vote on the landmark piece of legislation as they considered two amendments that were backed by the House of Lords last month.

The first, proposed by Lord Grantchester, sought a “requirement for agricultural food and imports to meet domestic standards” – amid long-standing fears that opening up the UK’s borders to cheap, lower quality imports such as chlorinated chicken could put British farmers at a major competitive disadvantage.

The second, tabled by Lord Curry of Kirkhale, aims to strengthen the powers of the recently-established Trade and Agriculture Commission and give MPs greater scrutiny of its findings and recommendations in relation to future trade deals. 

Supporting both amendments, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) wants Parliament to be provided with independent advice about the impact every trade deal will have on British food and farming standards before it decides whether to accept or reject those trade deals.

Currently there is no requirement for Parliament to debate trade deals before they are signed into law, the NFU has warned, and safeguards to allow MPs to reject such deals are limited.

Speaking to Times Radio yesterday ahead of the debate, Minette Batters, president of the NFU and a Wiltshire farmer, said: “We must expect the same standards of our food imports that we expect of our farmers here. It is very straightforward for farmers, if we are undermined by cheap raw ingredients that come in that do not have to abide by the same laws that we have to in this country, it will obviously undermine our producers here and in many cases it could put them out of business.

“The big success story for us as UK citizens is that we have the most affordable food in the whole of Europe, and we sit third in the league table globally… It’s about making sure that we do not put at risk what we have. We should show global leadership in this area and that’s what farmers are really up for – the opportunities around achieving net zero emissions and carbon neutral food, but we’ve got to maintain our standards.”

Labour is calling on ministers to put a “guarantee in law” that British food standards will not be lowered  as a result of the trade deals that the Government are currently seeking with countries including the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Shadow Environment Secretary and Plymouth MP, Luke Pollard, said it’s time for the Government to “put their money where their mouth is” and support British farmers.

Mr Pollard, Labour MP for Sutton and Devonport, added: “Ministers keep promising they’ll maintain high animal welfare and environmental standards after Brexit, but there’s still a serious threat that they will drop that promise to get the trade deals they’re so desperate to secure with Donald Trump and others.

“If the Government are serious about maintaining our high UK standards post-Brexit, they should get a guarantee in law, and support Labour’s amendment on Monday [October 12] to safeguard our standards and back British farmers.

“To vote out their own manifesto commitment to protect British food standards from their flagship food and Agriculture Bill is absurd.”

In May, the House of Commons voted against an amendment to the Agriculture Bill that would have guaranteed high standards for food and drink entering the country post-Brexit. In response, the NFU launched its food standards petition, which was signed by more than one million people and has been backed by celebrities including chef Jamie Oliver, presenter Jimmy Doherty and, most recently, Great British Bake Off judge, Prue Leith.

It also emerged yesterday that the Speaker of the House of Commons looked set to deny MPs the chance to vote on the Lord Curry amendment concerning the powers of the Trade and Agriculture Commission, amid a dispute over the terms of the ‘Money Resolution’ of the Agriculture Bill, which allows for the expenditure of public money on new laws.