A Government decision to reject an amendment to the Agriculture Bill which would have banned low-standard food imports has highlighted growing divisions among the Conservative Party leadership and its backbenchers on the issue.
Outlining her opposition to the House of Lords amendment during a debate in the Commons last night, Farming Minister Victoria Prentis said the change would make it difficult to sign trade deals, and that other countries – such as those in Africa – would find it hard to follow UK hedgerow regulations.
But Labour MP and former Defra Secretary Hilary Benn pointed out the EU had already forced Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay to keep their hens in line with European standards as part of its Mercosur deal, and said Ministers would have the power to determine equivalence on standards, taking account of climatic and landscape differences across the globe.
After the vote on the amendment, which was defeated by 328 votes to 277, Conservative MP Simon Hoare launched a veiled attack on his colleagues.
On Twitter, Mr Hoare, who pushed for a similar change to the Agriculture Bill last time it was in the Commons, said: “As I tweeted on Back British Farming Day: support for our farmers is a little more than a photo opp with a sheaf of wheat – it actually means standing up, doing something and being counted.”
Other Tory MPs, including Winchester’s Steve Brine, Staffordshire Moorlands’ Karen Bradley, Southend West’s Sir David Amess and High Peak’s Robert Largan, abstained.
In total, there were 21 Conservative MPs who did not record a vote, though some of the absences will have been authorised by Government – including those of the Prime Minister and Chancellor.
Industry bodies reacted with dismay to the vote, with British Veterinary Association (BVA) president James Russell describing it as a ‘severe blow to animal welfare and a betrayal of the Government’s own manifesto commitment to maintain and improve health and welfare standards’.
“After such a strong show of support in the Lords, it is bitterly disappointing that the majority of MPs have chosen to ignore the groundswell of public and professional feeling,” he added.
MPs were denied a vote on another key amendment to beef up the Trade and Agriculture Commission after the Speaker’s office ruled there was no legal basis for the Government to spend money on giving the body statutory responsibilities.
But Ministers did agree to increase the frequency of reporting on food security from once every five years to once every three years, with the first assessment due to be published at the end of 2021.
They also committed to launching a consultation on the role of labelling in promoting high standards across the UK market before December 2020, and promised to publish multi-annual financial assistance plans at least 12 months ahead of their coming into effect to give farmers time to prepare for any changes.
To read the debate on all the amendments in full, click HERE.