Dr Fox said regulatory alignment on Sanitary and Phytosanitary rules in the Chequers plan would limit agreements ‘to some extent’ but pressure remains from the US to drop import standards
Trade Secretary Dr Liam Fox has admitted the Chequers deal will limit freedom to do trade deals ‘to some extent’ and consumer pressure would not allow standards to be diminished in domestic markets.
Speaking at the AHDB Exploring Agricultural Export Opportunities conference, Dr Liam Fox highlighted the US trade representative had formally notified the US congress they were ready to begin work on a deal with the UK, which he described as the ‘first real step towards an independent trade policy’.
Pressure remains from the US to lower standards, with reports President Trump has told the UK to drop what he called ‘unjustified standards’.
And industry figures wanted a guarantee put into legislation to tie the Government’s hands when negotiating.
Dr Fox told the conference British standards were the unique selling point of British produce.
“I think people buy British because of our high standard. I think that is one of the things we must maintain,” he said.
“We are never going to be able to compete on the lower cost, lower quality part of the market. Where we need to be is at a high quality end.”
When AHDB chairman Peter Kendall asked him for a guarantee on imports, Dr Fox highlighted the Chequers agreement, saying they would maintain regulatory alignment on it.
He said some would say that would limit their freedom to do trade deals and ‘to some extent that is right’.
“But I think we would be limited by UK consumer pressure in any case because I think there is a strong view from consumers not to diminish standards inside the UK market.”
Mr Kendall was disappointed with the response, calling for a ‘cast iron commitment’ in the agriculture bill that products produced to lower standards than those in the UK would not be let in in trade deals.
He said putting the commitment in the bill would mean politicians could not go back on the commitment at the last moment when negotiating with the US and others.
“All the farmers in here will feel massively undermined if that happens. I would consider it a betrayal.”
However, he said it was encouraging to hear Dr Fox say he wanted agriculture to be a ‘vibrant industry’ which grows things, breeds things and sells things, rather than a constant focus on rewilding.
When asked about whether the UK would be diverging from decisions such as those made by the EU on gene editing, Dr Fox said he believed policies should be ‘based on science’.
“Also, we have to pay attention to any concepts like the precautionary principle which is a way, if taken too far, can easily become a tool of protection in an economy.
“So you have to try and balance it with proper scientific advice and I think that is very much the direction that certainly I will be pushing for as we move into the post-Brexit world.”