Campaigners vow to fight on as food standards vote fails

Farmers and food campaigners have pledged to fight on after MPs rejected their latest bid to protect UK standards in post-Brexit trade deals.

MPs voted by 332 to 279 – a majority of 53 – to overturn House of Lords amendment 16 to the Agriculture Bill which sought to ensure trade deals at least match UK domestic animal welfare standards.

Fourteen Conservative MPs, including former Defra secretary Theresa Villiers and Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, rebelled against their own party to support the amendment, but it was not enough to defeat the government.

See also: Farmers in last-ditch tractor protest to save food standards

Liz Webster, founder of campaign group Save British Farming (SBF), which staged a tractor demonstration in London on Monday, told Farmers Weekly: “We are feeling shattered today. We really want to urge the peers to continue to fight this. They have got the power to keep this rolling.”

‘Heavily disappointing’

“While last night is heavily disappointing, we have put a lot of hope back in the peers that they can redraft the amendment.

“We want farmers and the public to write to their MPs and peers and local papers to stress that we should have it in law that our standards are protected.

“As the Covid mess is becoming clearer, the government is in dangerous territory. In a few months’ time, we could be in a no-deal Brexit scenario trying to negotiate trade deals.”

The government has set up a Trade and Agriculture Commission, an independent advisory body set up to which advise its trade policies. However, MPs were denied a vote on a Lords amendment to increase the powers of the commission due to compatibility issues with the bill’s agreed “money resolution”, after minsters argued it would result in extra costs to the public purse.

During the debate ahead of the vote, Defra farm minister Victoria Prentis said the government was “absolutely committed” to high standards.

She said restrictions under EU law would stop foods produced to lower standards, such as US chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef from entering the UK.

Ms Prentis added: “The tools we have to ensure high standards are, as I’ve tried to set out, many and varied, and strong enough to protect standards even under pressure.”

Market risks

However, critics maintain that unless the commitment is enshrined in law in the Agriculture Bill, there is a risk that the UK market will be flooded with cheap foods, produced to lower standards, which would undercut British farmers.

Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, who backed the amendment, told the Commons the UK should seize the opportunity to be a “great beacon” of high animal welfare and environmental protection when negotiating future trade deals.

The chairman of the Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) select committee said: “We have in our manifesto the commitment to both animal welfare and the environment.

“Would it not be right for the secretary of state for international trade to have the armour of having the backing of parliament to say: ‘I can’t negotiate away that particular part of the deal with you because it is written down in law’?”

‘Broken promise’

Following the vote, shadow Defra secretary Luke Pollard said: “The Conservatives have again broken their promise to British farmers and the public.

“No one wants lower-quality food on our plates, but there is an increasing risk that this could happen because the prime minister is refusing to show leadership.

“Labour will always back British farmers and it is a disgrace that the Tories won’t do the same.”

Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson Tim Farron said: “The Conservatives have continually promised to back British farmers throughout the Brexit process, but their failure tonight to uphold our high food standards reveals just how hollow those promises were.

“Farmers across the country are incredibly worried about the future ­– they’re worried that the UK is about to be flooded with poor-quality food undercutting their high-quality produce. The votes on the Agriculture Bill this evening brings us a step closer to that reality.

“The Liberal Democrats will continue to stand up for our farmers. If the government doesn’t protect our food standards, they will only sow more uncertainty and worry for our farming industry.”

James Russell, president of the British Veterinary Association, said: “This result is a severe blow for animal welfare and a betrayal of the government’s own manifesto commitment to maintain and improve on health and welfare standards.”

The government’s Agriculture Bill will now be sent back to the House of Lords as part of a process known as “ping-pong”, in which the two chambers resolve policy disagreements by sending bills back and forth.

Full results of Lords amendment votes to the Agriculture Bill

  • Lords Amendment 11, which sought to limit the use of pesticides to protect the public, was voted down by 347 votes to 212.
  • Lords Amendment 16, which aimed to maintain British food standards in trade deals, was voted down by 332 votes to 279.
  • Lords Amendment 17, which sought to improve environmental protections, was voted down by 344 votes to 206.