Without some serious changes, the Trade and Agriculture Commission could end up becoming little more than a fig leaf for the Government’s failure to protect production standards in law, says Labour Shadow Farming Minister Daniel Zeichner.
In the ongoing struggle between those who would wish to use trade deals to allow in cheap, substandard food imports, and those who want to protect our high British food production standards, Labour is clear which we side we are on.
We believe British farmers must not be undercut by food produced abroad under animal welfare, environmental and food safety conditions which would be illegal here, nor should British standards be lowered by the agreement of regulatory equivalence with trading partners who produce food to lower standards.
With deadlines on possible trade agreements tight, and our American trading partners clearly expecting the Government to bend on these matters, the Government’s verbal commitment to protect our standards continues to look worryingly fragile without any legal guarantees.
That’s why Labour has repeatedly called for the Government to put this issue beyond doubt, with a simple amendment to the Agriculture Bill or Trade Bill guaranteeing the protection of British standards in trade agreements - but to no avail.
After months of insisting such scrutiny would not be needed and sustained pressure from the NFU and others, the Government’s move to finally establish a Trade and Agriculture Commission this month to make recommendations on the protection of our food production standards in trade agreements has been welcome – but there is growing concern that the proposals as they stand will leave the Commission lacking the transparency and powers needed to be fit for purpose.
Determined to continue conducting trade agreements in secret without Parliamentary scrutiny, the model of a Commission the Government has been prepared to offer is one that will only exist for six months, presenting one report, with recommendations that will be advisory and not subject to full Parliamentary debate.
So far the membership of the Commission is well-populated with industry voices, but lacks a breadth of opinion and expertise on trade.
And with trade negotiations already under way with the US, and the Commission’s report not expected for half a year, questions abound: if a trade deal is struck with the US contrary to the Commission’s recommendations what will the Government do?
If these issues are not addressed, the Commission could well prove little more than a fig leaf for the Government’s continued failure to commit in law to banning lower standard imports: a body whose recommendations could come too late, carry too little weight, and be ignored by the Government without Parliamentary challenge.
Labour has a different vision for the future of our British food, farming and trade – we want transparency, and protections for our farmers and high food production standards.
We want a legal guarantee against British values and food production standards being traded away, and proper parliamentary scrutiny and authorisation of negotiated agreements.
As the Agriculture and Trade Bills continue their journey through Parliament and further details of the Trade and Agriculture Commission become clear, we’ll keep fighting for our British farmers and food.
Daniel can be found tweeting at @DanielZeichner