The House of Lords will test the Government’s commitment to protecting standards in trade deals, with peers almost certain to add a new clause to the Agriculture Bill, says Bristol East Labour MP Kerry McCarthy.
This month, after an almost 500-day hiatus, the Agriculture Bill returned to Parliament.
While there have been a number of welcome revisions to the Bill during its time away, including the addition of soil health as a public good and a namecheck for agroecology, its core weakness has not changed.
It still fails to protect British farmers from cheap, low-quality imports.
That’s why, in my speech for the Second Reading, I renewed my call for the Government to include a black and white commitment in the Bill that it will not import food that does not meet the UK’s environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards in any future trade deal.
It’s also why Labour voted to block the passage of the Bill, albeit unsuccessfully, to the next legislative stage.
I’m now a member of the committee that is scrutinising the Bill line-by-line and, as you heard from Daniel Zeichner in his piece last week, we took evidence from a wide range of stakeholders.
If there was a common theme that united them all, it was the demand for a commitment that we should not import food produced to standards below our own.
It’s a call which unites vast swathes of the farming, business, environment, animal welfare, public health and academic community.
Minette Batters hit the nail on the head earlier this week at the NFU’s annual conference when she said “opening our ports, shelves and fridges to food which would be illegal to produce here would not only be morally bankrupt, it would be the work of the insane.”
I honestly don’t think I could’ve put it any better myself and her words should be heeded by those sat around the cabinet table in Downing Street.
Unfortunately, given the size of the Government’s majority, it looks highly unlikely that any changes will be made to the Bill in the House of Commons.
Indeed, every amendment put forward at Committee Stage so far has been voted down.
Regardless of that, I’d encourage all of you to get in touch with your MPs now to ask them to sign the amendments tabled which would prevent low-quality imports ahead of the Bill’s Report Stage and Third Reading next month.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the real test for the Government will come further down the track when the Bill reaches the House of Lords, where it seems likely a new clause on trade will be added.
Such an amendment would box the Government into an increasingly tight corner, especially now the European Union has demanded we keep the ban on chlorinated chicken as a prerequisite of any free trade agreement.
Baptism of fire
Even with his years of experience at Defra, it feels like the next six months will be a baptism of fire for George Eustice following his promotion to Secretary of State.
His early tour of the airwaves certainly didn’t inspire confidence that he’d be willing to offer any guarantees on trade.
In an opinion piece for The Guardian last year, where he contrasted our animal welfare standards with those in the United States, George rightly said the UK has ‘built one of the most sophisticated and discerning markets for food anywhere in the world’.
It’d be a tragedy to ruin that in pursuit of a bargain basement deal with the US.
Kerry can be found tweeting at @KerryMP