MPs who voted down an Agriculture Bill amendment to ban low-standard imports in May could have been waiting for a Government concession. But if they choose to reject another similar Lords amendment in two weeks, they will not be forgiven, says Tom Lancaster, head of land use policy at the RSPB.
On Monday October 12, the debate about farm standards will come to a head.
On that day, MPs will consider amendments from the House of Lords to the Agriculture Bill, including two on trade and standards that are crucial to ensuring safeguards for our farmers, our environment, our food and our animals.
Firstly, a Labour amendment from Lord Grantchester puts in place firm safeguards on imports which do not meet UK standards.
For those who believe natural justice dictates that British farmers should reasonably expect not to see imports of food that would be illegal to produce here, this amendment is key.
Keen watchers of the Agriculture Bill will recognise much of the amendment from the one Neil Parish, Conservative MP and chair of the Efra select committee, tabled when the Bill was in the Commons in May.
The defeat of that amendment, albeit with a sizeable Tory rebellion, generated major headlines in the farming press and elsewhere at the time.
While MPs could be forgiven for voting it down then, in the expectation that Government may still bring forward its own concession on the issue, to vote it down now would give farmers and others real reason to doubt the Conservative manifesto commitment to maintain environmental, food and animal welfare standards.
The second amendment from respected cross-bench peer Lord Curry is intended to strengthen the Trade and Agriculture Commission, much derided for being too weak and unrepresentative to stand any chance of holding the Government to account on trade and standards.
We see these two amendments as complementary, with a stronger Trade and Agriculture Commission playing an important role in advising Government on how to uphold standards, including those imports which need to remain banned in order to do this.
The Government, however, remains blinkered to the public support for British standards.
They insist that neither amendment is needed, and bans on things like chlorinated chicken and hormone treated beef are already in UK law, and therefore further legislative safeguards aren’t needed.
But this ignores the fact that many of the current legal bans could be overturned by Ministers through what is known as the ‘negative procedure’, whereby regulations are laid before Parliament and pass without the need for a vote.
This was confirmed by Lord Gardiner in the House of Lords last week, seemingly flying in the face of assurances from the Farming Minister in the Commons in May ‘…that under existing regulations, which we will put into English law at the end of this year, chlorine-washed chicken is not allowed, and only a vote of this House can change that’.
Although Ministers may technically be correct in saying changes to the law through the negative procedure have gone through Parliamentary scrutiny, no piece of secondary legislation going through this route has been overturned since 1979.
So assurances from Ministers that our standards are safe in law are clearly paper-thin.
What these Lords amendments to the Agriculture Bill do is provide an important and proportionate set of checks and balances that are both necessary, and entirely consistent with Government policy.
They are also fundamental to the way we want to farm in this country.
With the welcome reforms to farm payments in the Bill, we have an opportunity to support farmers to transform the way we produce food, and take vital steps to restore nature across our countryside.
In his important speech on conserving global biodiversity to the United Nations this week, the Prime Minister observed that we need more than good intentions, we need ‘concerted, co-ordinated, global action’.
For farmers to be confident that their actions to restore nature are backed by their own Government, establishing in law these safeguards for our environmental, animal welfare and food standards will be vital prerequisite.
Tom can be found tweeting at @tommlancaster