After listening carefully to the arguments on both sides, Conservative High Peak MP Robert Largan decided he couldn’t vote for or against the Agriculture Bill amendment to ban low standard imports. Here, he explains why.
One of the biggest challenges we face post-Brexit is getting the balance right between expanding trade with the rest of the world and protecting the interests of British producers and consumers.
The first big step forward is the Agriculture Bill, a landmark piece of legislation.
For the first time in decades we can make our own rules to ensure farmers are effective custodians of the countryside as well as producers of the nation’s food.
The principle of providing public money for public goods is a good one and will be enshrined in this legislation.
My colleague, Neil Parish, put forward a much talked about amendment to the Agriculture Bill.
His amendment was designed to try and ensure that in future trade deals, agricultural or food products imported into the UK will have been produced to standards at least equal to UK domestic standards in relation to animal health and welfare, plant health, and environmental protection.
This issue is close to my heart and I have written about it previously for the Farmers Guardian.
It is not enough to just keep food prices as low as possible.
We also have to ensure food is produced to the best possible standard for the benefit of our environment and our communities.
In the Peak District, we know better than most the important role farming plays, not just in putting food on our table but in managing and conserving our beautiful landscape.
After reviewing the evidence and listening carefully to the opposing arguments, I decided that I couldn’t vote with the Government against the amendment.
Food standards, animal welfare and environmental protections are incredibly important. I want to support British farmers and ensure they can compete on a level playing field.
However, I could not vote in favour of the amendment either.
The drafting of the amendment would lead to serious unintended consequences in future trade negotiations, and potentially prevent us from carrying over existing trade deals negotiated during our time as an EU member.
It is also questionable whether WTO rules would allow such an amendment to be enforced.
The result would be great harm to the UK’s international reputation for promoting open trade and international rule-taking.
Some people might say that abstaining is fence sitting, but in this case, refusing to vote with the Government sends a clear message to Ministers that we must not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.
We want to open up trade, but that must not mean simply opening the floodgates to all food imports regardless of quality.
British negotiators should take a nuanced approach during trade talks, maintaining our standards and blocking the import of goods produced by specific practices that go against environmental protection, animal welfare or food safety.
Ministers also need to think seriously about developing an export strategy for British farming.
Our farmers produce high quality and ethically managed produce that we can promote around the world. This is something to celebrate and put at the heart of the ‘Global Britain’ brand.
Clearly this debate is going to rumble on for some time. Governing is difficult and rarely involves easy answers.
Rob can be found tweeting at @robertlargan