I gave careful consideration about amendment NC2 to the Agriculture Bill, which aimed to ensure that any agricultural or food products imported into the UK under a trade deal must have been produced to an equivalent of the UK’s high animal and environmental standards.
I have long made clear my opposition to low animal welfare imports and this was a key commitment of the Conservative election manifesto. It would be bad for animals, and bad for West Berkshire’s farmers to be undercut by overseas competitors who unscrupulously cut costs by reducing their own standards. It would, in effect, be exporting animal cruelty.
However, whilst I fully support the amendment’s overall objective, I chose not to support NC2 for three key reasons:
- First, the Agriculture Bill is a domestic piece of legislation. Whilst supportive of the amendment’s objectives, its focus on international trade is better suited to more appropriate legislation, such as the Trade Bill, which is still undergoing its passage through Parliament.
- Second, the wording of the Amendment itself did not sufficiently guarantee that imports would meet the same UK agricultural standards, only equivalent standards. This raises difficult questions on interpretation and enforcement in overseas industries.
- Third, and following on from the second point, the wording of NC2 specifically prohibits any trade deal being laid before Parliament for approval, unless a Minister can confirm that any agricultural or food product imported into the UK under such an agreement has been produced or processed according to equivalent standards as in the UK. While I understand the broad principle behind this wording, in practice the use of the term ’any’ is not helpful, for there are always exceptions in every industry. For example, this would have meant that the UK Government could never agree a trade agreement with the United States of America, if the UK Government sought to import even one single food product for which there was no equivalent in the United Kingdom.
Instead, rather than imposing arbitrary amendments on UK negotiators and thereby preventing us from agreeing a truly bespoke trade deals or ending up in a legislative gridlock, I would prefer to see the Department for International Trade working in lockstep with our agricultural sector and environmental agencies to secure a trade agreement that would uphold our high domestic standards on food and agricultural imports in a mutually beneficial manner.
To that end, I would prefer to see an independent commission established, comprised of leading agricultural and environmental bodies from across the UK, to offer independent recommendations and advice to the Department on how to achieve a trade deal that works for everyone, and which would uphold our high environmental and agricultural standards.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) have made similar calls, and as a result I have written to the International Trade Secretary, to ask the Department what plans are being put in place to set up a Trade, Food, and Standards Commission. I have also tabled Parliamentary Questions to this effect, and if selected, I will be raising this matter in the Commons.
Finally, I would add that I have remained engaged with my colleagues across the House on this issue. Whilst I am encouraged by the strongly expressed commitments from the Ministerial team at DEFRA towards animal welfare standards, I am continuing my conversations with other MPs who share a similar commitment to animal welfare standards and farmers in their constituencies as I do. We remain adamant that the UK should not be importing cruelty, and that the UK’s position should not shift to undermine either our standards or our agricultural industries.
Please rest assured that I will use future opportunities to challenge the Government on this (including on future votes) and I will seek to ensure that these assurances are honoured.