Agriculture Bill: MPs back greater scrutiny of trade deals but reject amendment enshrining standards in law

MPs have again rejected an amendment proposed by the House of Lords to require imports to meet UK standards under future trade deals.

However, in a significant move, they have accepted a Government amendment that will give Parliament more powers to scrutinise future trade deals and their impact on food production standards. The Government has also agreed to beef up the powers of the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC).

Amendment 16B, which would set in law a requirement for imported food to meet UK standards, was defeated by 331 votes to 271 as the Bill was debated in the House of Commons again on Wednesday night.

While there will be disappointment within the farming industry over the vote, the Government’s acceptance of calls, led by the NFU, for extra scrutiny of trade deals, announced over the weekend, represents a significant change of direction and a welcome concession.

Farming Minister Victoria Prentis told MPs that her concern about amendment 16B was that it would ‘cause problems for our negotiators and impose burdensome administrative measures on our trading partners’.

“Demonstrating equivalence of standards is a complex and technical task that involves delving deeply into the cowsheds, chicken huts and legislatures of other nations. I feel that our amendment in lieu is a better way to achieve the goal,” she said.

Ms Prentis reiterated the Government’s manifesto commitment that it ‘would not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare or food standards’ in its trade negotiations. She insisted a combination of existing legislation, regulatory bodies like the Food Standards Agency, consumer labelling and parliamentary scrutiny would help achieve this.

“However, during the passage of the Bill it has been made it clear that further parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals is desirable,” she added.

“That is why we have tabled an amendment requiring us to report to Parliament on the impact of new trade agreements on the maintenance of our food, animal welfare and environmental protection standards.”

This proposed new clause would add a duty on the Secretary of State to present a report to Parliament before or alongside any free trade agreement laid before Parliament.

Ms Prentis added that the Government was also putting the TAC, which was initially only set up for a six-month period, on a statutory footing, with a provision to review it every three years. “That will ensure that our trade policy is examined in detail by key experts. This House asked for parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals, and I am delighted to provide it,” she said.

Shadow Agriculture Minister Luke Pollard welcomed the Government’s ‘adoption of large parts of Labour policy since the last time we spoke about the Agriculture Bill’.

But he said the vote was a decision about what type of country we want Britain to be. “I want Britain to be a country of high standards that respects ​the welfare of animals and ensures that environmental protection is baked into our food chain. We therefore continue to press Ministers to put our high food and farming standards into law,” he said.

EFRA chairman Neil Parish, who has previously tabled amendments to the Bill seeking to protect UK farmers from lower import standards, also welcomed the Government’s change of heart.

He said the TAC would not have the powers to stop proposals under new trade deals, but would have the powers to bring them to parliament.

“I very much welcome what Ministers are doing and the beefed-up Trade and Agriculture Commission. We need fair trade, not just free trade; they are compatible. I believe that we will see good trade deals in the future but we will maintain standards,” he said.

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