In another U-turn, Liz Truss has bowed to pressure to give teeth to a new watchdog to prevent trade deals, particularly with the US, watering down food and animal welfare standards.
Now the new Trade and Agriculture Commission will be made properly independent, permanent and given the power to scrutinise each deal for its impact on food, welfare and environmental standards.
And Neil Parish, a Tory rebel on the issue, said: “It’s been hard work, but I think we’re in a much better place now. We wanted firm guarantees in legislation and that is what we’ve got.”
Anne McIntosh, a Conservative peer and campaigner, said: “All our farmers ever wanted was fair competition and a level playing field and the government has recognised this and addressed these concerns.”
Ms Truss was forced to concede the setting up of the commission in the summer – but it had no budget, an advisory function only and was due to be wound up after six months.
Once permanent and independent, campaigners believe it will not sanction lower standards, achieving the “same objective” as an outright legal ban on acid-washed chicken, for example.
However, the climbdown is a huge blow for Ms Truss’s hopes of striking a quickfire trade deal with Washington, which has insisted access for its agricultural products is a red line.
Ms Truss had urged MPs and worried groups to simply trust the government when it said it would not cut food standards.
But they feared she did not want her hands tied – noting the UK has already proposed allowing in chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef in the US trade talks, albeit with higher tariffs.
Jamie Oliver had stepped up his warning of an influx of cheap food if ministers are able to prevent “proper parliamentary scrutiny”, saying: “I don’t like the smell of it.”
Announcing the U-turn, Ms Truss, along with environment secretary George Eustice, said, in a newspaper article, that an amendment had been tabled to the Agriculture Bill.
“It will place a duty on the government to report to parliament on the impact of trade agreements on the maintenance of food, welfare and environmental standards,” the pair wrote.
“Also, we have the independent Trade and Agriculture Commission, under the chairmanship of the trusted former Food Standards Agency head Tim Smith.
“Thanks to the commission’s excellent work, we are announcing today that it will be made a statutory body which will give independent advice on trade deals as they go through parliament.”