Ed's Brexit round-up - will food standards be protected?
15th May 2020 / By Ed Barker
The last few days has seen a flurry of activity around the Agriculture Bill, which has returned to Parliament and completed its stages in the Commons on Wednesday.
After the COVID-19 hiatus, Parliament is now sitting again, and a very limited number of MPs are back in Westminster. However the majority are attending Parliament sessions from home.
With some inevitability, the Agriculture Bill would be the first major piece of legislation that operated through an online format – with speeches from MPs and subsequent voting all made online.
As members would expect, we briefed a number of MPs prior to the debate and worked alongside NFU colleagues on key messaging and where we felt the Bill could be amended or strengthened.
Sadly, and somewhat inevitably no amendments that we supported were taken forward. The most hopeful amendment came in the form of Neil Parish MP, Chair of the EFRA Select Committee.
It sought to insert a legal commitment to maintain UK environmental, food and animal welfare standards on imports under new trade deals. This would seem very straightforward and an aspiration that any one would think reasonable.
Despite a significant number of Conservative MPs rebelling against the party whip (and all opposition parties voting with it), the sizeable Government majority meant that it was voted down with relative ease.
Government Ministers claimed on separate occasions that the amendment would constrain any imports at all under new trade deals, whilst also pointing out that it would not allow blocks on imports under WTO rules.
When challenged, backbench MPs of rural areas who did vote for this have all given different reasons for why they didn’t vote with the amendment and instead side with the Government. I would suggest you asks yours why they didn’t (if they didn’t)!
The Government would argue with a degree of justification that the Agriculture Bill should be focussed on domestic agricultural legislation covering payments, market support and intervention, grants, food security and new environmental schemes.
However, as the likes of Mr Parish will ask – if not here, then where? The Government this week stated its negotiating objectives for a Japan Free Trade Agreement, and in it, was desperate to reiterate that food standards will not be compromised – and it could well be that food standards are simply taken and agreed upon a case-by-case basis.
This is less transparent and makes us in farming simply have to rely on Government to have our back. One could look to the upcoming Trade Bill, but this is also a very dry piece of legislation that is more focused on what Ministers can and can’t do, along with the likes of HMRC – as opposed to granular details about food and farming standards.
As a result of this, we have no actual idea from Government where this commitment (as stated in their manifesto!) will sit and where it will be enacted.
Food security debate
The issue was clearly front and centre of concerns in the House of Lords, who separately held a debate yesterday on food security.
Expect to see similar amendments tabled again in the Lords on standards – now that mainstream media has picked this up, you could expect to see a bit more of a bunfight between the two and a lot of media airtime on it.
I have been in contact with a number of Peers who clearly are set on putting amendments forward. As you may have seen from previous debates in the Lords, we are fortunate to have a number of engaged and knowledgeable Peers who know the farming world well.
It was perhaps unfortunate that the day after the Ag Bill was passed from the Commons (and the Parish amendment was voted down) on Wednesday, two other things emerged on the Thursday.
US Trade deal and badger cull controversy
The first was a report in the Financial Times that the UK was marching on ahead to meet with US representatives and were looking to lower our tariffs to the USA as part of a Free Trade Agreement.
We know talks have been going on, but a concession on tariffs (as the journalist who wrote it said to me afterwards ‘the UK is starting to show some ankle’) would be a major step for a low cost producer like the USA.
The other issue was that the High Court reviewed the NFU’s case against the Government for revoking badger culling licenses in Derbyshire.
The fact that the Government’s decision was upheld was a minor point; the most revealing thing to have emerged was that the decision had effectively been taken on a whim by the Prime Minister, after having been lobbied by his girlfriend, and now fiance, a well known green activist, who had in turn been lobbied by the head of the Badger Trust.
Despite murmurings for some time this had been the case, the judgement effectively underlined it all out in the open.
As one tweet I made on Thursday evening pointed out, this triple whammy in the space of 24 hours was not a good look for Defra’s PR people.
The subsequent popularity of the tweet across media, MPs and former NFU presidents would seem to suggest it was an accurate reflection. Subsequent discussions with BBC Today and the FT would suggest there is a lot of interest to run on this. One of the rebel MPs has told me they will continue their fight, so we shall all see.
Well the Ag Bill will likely be wrapped up before mid-July, and at some point what has gone on behind the scenes with US negotiations is going to have to come up for air.
There is only so long it can be hidden behind closed doors. As a result of this, I would be astounded if there is not a concerted push by Government to find a way to reassure farming communities that they really do mean what they say. The voting down of the Parish amendment is opportunity lost. We will have to see what is next.
One last thing on MPs who voted down the Parish amendment. There has been a lot of vitriol against MPs who went with Government whips online; in their defence I firmly believe that most if not all in no way want to see their local farming businesses undercut or flooded by cheap imports.
Many will have spoken to Ministers and whips directly about their concerns and I am sure many will have received assurances that this will not happen, and perhaps there is an element of trust that their concerns will be upheld.
Part of the problem is that this hasn’t been that well explained by the Government and MPs are having to carry the can a bit for this decision. They know full well that if a Conservative Government allowed its farming businesses to get undercut despite reassurances they wouldn’t, then it would be remembered forever and a lot of bridges at local level will be burnt.
Often the time for rebelling as a backbencher comes at the 11th hour, when you really have to and there is no alternative.
We are not there yet and this new Government in the grips of a pandemic has been given the benefit of the doubt. However the question that any farming constituent will need to know is – how, other than blind trust, will food standards be protected?
Watch this space...