Recently the government accepted changes to proposed legislation that may make it harder to sign trade deals that harm food and animal welfare standards. Many see it as step in the right direction in protecting the quality of the food on our plates and our farmers and follows rebellions – led in the Commons by senior Tory MP Neil Parish the member for Tiverton and Honiton and in the Lords by crossbench peer Lord Curry – over claims that Ministers’ original plans for a temporary food commission were ‘toothless’.
The newly formed Trade and Agriculture Commission – a group set up to advise the government on how trade will affect our farmers and the food we eat – has been given legal status. This means its recommendations will hold more sway but are not binding.
The Commission will be required to produce a report to MPs on how any new trade deal will affect our food and animal welfare standards. This will arm MPs with more information to decide whether to debate or even block any trade deals that threaten these things. However, it has to be remembered that the government has an 80 majority in the Commons.
The government has vowed not to ‘negotiate to remove that ban (on chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef) in a trade deal’ – however they haven’t yet backed this up with legal protections.
More than one million people signed a National Farmers’ Union petition to protect British food standards while tens of thousands got in touch with MPs expressing concerns over the original proposals. Organisations from the National Farmers’ Union, CLA and Tenant Farmers Association, to Green Alliance, RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, Which?, Sustain, WWF, 38 Degrees and many more combined to get changes to the legislation.
NFU President Minette Batters said. “This significant commitment to primary legislation on food standards, both in the Agriculture Bill and Trade Bill, is exactly what we have been calling for. It is a landmark moment for the people of the UK, for our countryside and the future of the food on our plates.”
However, writing in The Guardian on 12 November the Observer’s restaurant critic and feature writer Jay Rayner was more cautious. “There was a more reliable way to protect those standards. During its passage through parliament there were three attempts to amend the agriculture bill so as to enshrine them in law. The government voted them all down. It hasn’t even come up with a basic trade policy which establishes what its red lines are. And as it stands, the review process for each trade deal lasts only three weeks, which is completely inadequate for such extraordinarily complex treaties. Finally, each trade deal will now be taken on a case-by-case basis in the Commons, where the government has a robust 80-seat majority. Can we guarantee standards will be upheld by this government? No, we cannot.”