This dangerous piece of legislation threatens to undermine animal welfare and product standardsby Anna Bramall / May 20, 2020 / Leave a comment
Brexit requires the UK to have a new agricultural policy, and this will be defined in large part by the Agriculture Bill, once it has completed its passage through the House of Lords and any amendments have been considered.
Fellow vets, along with anyone else who cares about the environment, animal welfare and the quality of the food we eat, have good reason to be very worried about the Bill’s passing of third reading on 13th May, as yet unamended.
A majority of MPs voted against an amendment, new Clause 2, requiring new international treaties on the import of agricultural and food products to comply with World Trade Organisation safety rules and the UK’s own standards. It was put forward by the chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Conservative MP Neil Parish, and was defeated after receiving the support of just 22 other Conservative MPs.
The proposed amendment would have protected our environment and animal welfare standards in future trade deals. As Parish wrote an article for the ConservativeHome website, “there is no point having world-leading standards in the UK if we do not expect trade partners to reciprocate.” This stance was supported by the British Veterinary Association, along with 26 signatories of a letter, including representatives of the National Farmers’ Union, RSPCA, Wildlife Trust, Friends of the Earth, Green Peace, Soil Association and WWF, sent to all MPs.
This letter proposed that “The Bill should ensure that agri-food imports are produced to at least equivalent environmental, animal welfare, and food safety standards as those required of producers in the UK… We have heard concerns that such an approach would prevent the UK achieving the maximum benefit from its decision to leave the EU. We believe the opposite is true.”
We now come to the crux of the issue. The government appears to have decided against incorporating these standards into law because, as former international trade secretary Liam Fox pointed out during his speech in parliament on the 13th:
“the US would walk were the proposals to become law in the United Kingdom, and it would be swiftly followed by others—the Australians, the New Zealanders and those involved in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership would be unlikely to take kindly to it.”
Fox then went on to say “They do not want the incorporation of UK rules to become a prerequisite to trading agreements with the United Kingdom.”
And the Financial Times reported on 14th May that “the Department for International Trade was preparing to offer a ‘big concession package’ to US negotiators in the coming months that would reduce the cost of some agricultural imports to unlock a trade deal with Washington.”
On 15th May, after the third negotiating round in the EU trade talks, David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, reported that there had been “very little progress towards agreement.” He went on to say “The major obstacle to this is the EU’s insistence on including a set of novel and unbalanced proposals on the so-called ‘level playing field’.” Of course, a “level playing field” is part of what enables the EU to avoid the UK undercutting the integrity of its vitally important single market.
The upshot is that, with the exception of Northern Ireland, the British government is surely on track for accepting imports of chlorinated chicken, hormone-fed beef and pork, and eggs produced in battery cages, notwithstanding previous denials. All of which are currently banned in the UK on safety and/or welfare grounds. What does this mean? There are two main scenarios:
- Our current production standards remain the same, which is what was promised in the Conservative Party manifesto—“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.” As a consequence, it becomes very difficult for our farmers to compete with the lower-priced imports from countries with laxer standards.
- Standards in the UK are lowered, despite the manifesto promises upon which our government was elected, in order for British food to remain competitively priced. Animals, the environment, and safety standards will be compromised in order to strike trade deals.
The government has drawn red lines that are impossible for the EU to accommodate. This makes it likely that the UK will leave the transition period without a deal. That prospect, for which there is no democratic mandate from the 2016 referendum or the 2019 general election, will, according to the NFU, be “catastrophic for British Farming.” The BVA, BMA and CBI are also strongly opposed to a no-deal Brexit. The casualties will be animal welfare, the livelihoods of farmers and the health of consumers.
The NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts responded to the failure of the Parish amendment by saying:
“Let’s also hold politicians to account. Politicians who have said they value the importance of standards, they understand the importance of standards, but yet didn’t vote for the amendment. I want to know going forward how they will protect those standards, because they are absolutely critical to me as a farmer, to you as a farmer, but also to our consumers who value the standards we produce to.”
Now is the time for us all to contact our MPs and members of the House of Lords, and ask them to protect these standards as soon as possible, before the Agriculture Bill receives Royal Assent.