An amendment to the Agriculture Bill which would have banned low standard food imports from entering the UK was defeated in the House of Commons by 51 votes last night.
The amendment, put forward by the chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee Neil Parish, won cross-party support from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the DUP, but was opposed by the Government.
Farming Minister Victoria Prentis told the House the Agriculture Bill was about domestic farming, not trade, and suggested the amendment would have ‘unintended consequences’ if it were accepted, such as disrupting the supply of food into the UK – a point she made in more detail during earlier scrutiny of the legislation.
She also claimed the amendment would prevent exports such as whisky and potatoes being sent to countries which the UK has a trade agreement with by virtue of its EU membership, as changing the rules for imports would mean a continuity deal could not be ‘rolled over’.
“If the amendment were passed, an assessment of our current UK production standards, followed by an assessment of all relevant standards in a third country, followed by an assessment of how those compared with UK legislation and UK production standards would be required to make sure any free trade agreement complied with them,” she said.
“That would all have to be done by the end of December.”
22 Conservative MPs rebelled against the whip and voted for the Bill to be changed, while 15 abstained.
One abstainer, Robert Largan, MP for High Peak, said in a statement on Facebook that he had concerns about the drafting of the amendment, but wanted to send a message to Government about the importance of maintaining high environmental, animal welfare and food production standards.
The Bill will now move to the House of Lords, where it is likely similar amendments will be tabled.
If those are not accepted, the issue will be picked up again when the Trade Bill returns to Parliament, but without Ministerial support, a change in the law is unlikely.
The Government victory in the Commons came as the Financial Times reported that the UK is planning to cut tariffs on US agricultural imports to advance progress on a free trade agreement.
According to the article, ex-Defra Secretary Liz Truss, who now heads up the Department for International Trade, is battling current Defra Secretary George Eustice over the plans, which he believes will undercut UK farmers.
To see how your MP voted - aye is for the amendment, no against, and no vote recorded an abstention - click HERE.
NFU Cymru president John Davies: “NFU Cymru has been fighting hard on the standards issue for a long time now. We have been at the heart of a broad coalition of farming, consumer, environmental and animal welfare organisations from across the UK that has been making the case for upholding high standards in any future trade deals that the UK makes with third countries.
“Unfortunately, without this amendment the Bill lacks any formal requirement to uphold our farming production standards as we negotiate trade deals and in our general trade policy.
“We cannot have a trade policy which requires our farmers to compete against food produced to lower standards.
“Regrettably, the Bill will now leave the House of Commons without the amendments that we would like to have seen, so we will now focus our lobbying efforts on securing the amendments that we need to see at the House of Lords stages.”
Christopher Price, RBST: “It seems clear the Bill is going to become law as drafted. Now we need to move on and consider how the new powers it creates should be exercised.
“We know most of the environmental aspects will be delivered through the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, but we have heard very little about what that means for farmers in practice.
“And we have heard nothing on the other aspects, including the improvement of animal health and welfare and the conservation of native livestock.
“These powers have the potential to radically change livestock farming for the better and the sector needs to be focusing on what is required if we are to capitalise on the opportunities.”