Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Campaign reply - Agriculture Bill  - 1 July 2020

Thank you to those constituents who have sent me copies of campaign emails raising concerns around the Agriculture Bill currently going through Parliament.

I appreciate the interest and concern that this issue has raised – after all what could be more important than the safety and quality of the food we eat. I welcome the Government’s unambiguous and clear commitment that any future trade agreements must uphold the UK’s high levels on matters such as animal welfare, food safety and environmental protection. The EU Withdrawal Act transferred all existing EU food safety provisions into UK law. The government has gone to considerable trouble to make clear that these standards will not be lowered during any trade deal negotiations.

On 24 June The Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP, Secretary of State for International Trade, emphatically stated that a ban on importing chlorinated chicken was “already in UK law” and that the country “will never lower our standards in order to sign a trade deal”. She could not have been clearer. Reports to the contrary are spurious and mischievous.

She also said there is “no deadline for an agreement.” She will get the deal we all want to see regarding food standards or not at all.  In the House of Commons Trade Select Committee, she said there had been “a lot of scaremongering” over trade negotiations in an attempt to worry consumers.

 As if further proof were needed it has been widely reported in the media that Lord Price,  who was once managing director of Waitrose and now trade minister, said: “People are either wilfully, or out of a degree of misunderstanding or naivety, making a completely false assumption — that our secretary of state can go to a foreign country and get a deal that means goods not meeting British standards can be imported and legally sold. That’s just not the case.”

Ministers have continued their dialogue with interested parties including the NFU. In a joint letter from Elizabeth Truss and The Rt Hon George Eustice MP, Secretary of State for International Trade   Secretary of State for the Environment, & President of the Board of Trade Food and Rural Affairs, they announced the formation of a trade and Agricultural Commission. This has been welcomed by many stakeholders and I whole heartedly support this as it goes even further to underline the government’s commitment on the various concerns expressed.     

Here is a copy of the letter as sent to all MPs and widely published elsewhere:

'Formation of Trade and Agriculture Commission

Any trade deal the UK strikes must be fair and reciprocal to our farmers, and must not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards. We have been clear on these points and will continue to fight for the interests of our farming industry in all trade agreements we negotiate.

We are pleased therefore, on behalf of the Government, to agree in principle to the establishment of a Trade and Agriculture Commission under Department for International Trade auspices. The Commission’s terms of reference will be published in due course.

This is the first time in over 40 years that the UK has pursued its own independent trade policy. In forming this Commission, we will ensure the importance of close engagement with the agriculture industry to help inform, shape and guide agricultural trade policy, so that this is recognised throughout our trade negotiations. 

The Commission will not be another quango or regulator, and its role will be strictly time-limited. Once the Commission has finished its work, it will produce a report in line with its terms of reference that will be presented to Parliament by the Department for International Trade. Its recommendations will be advisory only. 

Support for this Commission has come from the National Farmers’ Unions in England, Scotland and Wales, as well as from Northern Ireland’s Ulster Farmers’ Union. 

The report, and the work of the Commission, will focus on four areas:

1. What policies the Government could adopt in free trade agreements to ensure UK farmers do not face unfair competition and that their high animal welfare and production standards are not undermined. 2. How best to reflect both consumer interests and those of developing countries. 3. How the UK engages international organisations to advance higher animal welfare and environmental protection standards across the world.

Rt Hon George Eustice MP Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Seacole Building 2 Marsham Street London SW1P 4DF 

4. How trade policy identifies and opens up new export opportunities for the UK agriculture industry – in particular for small and medium sized businesses – that benefit the UK economy as a whole.

We look forward to continuing to work constructively with colleagues in this area.

ENDS.

The UK’s food standards, for both domestic production and imports, are overseen by the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland. These are independent agencies and provide advice to the UK and Scottish governments. They will continue to do so in order to ensure that all food imports comply with the UK’s high safety standards. Decisions on these standards are a matter for the UK and will be made separately from any trade agreement.

The best way we can ensure the wellbeing of everyone in all our communities, is to see the UK free at last again to trade across the globe, without the shackles of the EU. Whilst change always brings challenges (and there will be some along the way), I firmly believe we will have a better brighter future, with more trade opportunities. A prosperous nation can afford the health care and healthy lifestyles and diets we want for everyone.

The Government is determined to ensure that our future trade agreements will deliver benefits for our brilliant farmers and food producers. Cornwall produces some of the finest food in the world and as we commence our new journey, free to trade once again across the globe, I am confident that our famed food and drink will find many new markets boosting demand whilst seeing our home market protected with appropriate legislation.

I welcome the vital role migrant labour plays both in our communities and as part of the workforce. I fully recognise the importance of farmers being able to recruit migrant labourers to fill shortages and with the help from the local NFU adviser, I was able to meet with farmers in mid-Cornwall to discuss their concerns on the potential shortage of seasonal workers and relay them to ministers at DEFRA and the Home Office. I was of course pleased to welcome the launch of the SAWS pilot in 2018 and again when the quota quadrupled from 2,500 to 10,000, and it seems clear that the Government now has a better understanding of the importance of seasonal work.

I also spoke in the Immigration Bill’s Second Reading raising the issue of the importance of role migrant labour to farmers - and also the leisure industry.

On investment and the so called “EU funding” in the Duchy, the EU does not have any money, only the funds we send them of which we receive a portion back – a crazy middleman scheme we will shortly be able to jettison.  Instead we will have The Shared Prosperity Fund. It will replace cumbersome EU funding, be far better targeted and easier to administer.

Trade talks have already formally opened with the US following wide ranging consultation. Ahead of negotiations, the Government set out negotiating objectives, as well as a response to the public consultation and an initial economic assessment. A similar process will be replicated in the coming months, as the government lays out detailed proposals for deals with Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

On the matter of food security, our landmark Agriculture Bill sets out that, for the first time, the Government will have a duty to take a regular, systematic view of our overall food security, at least every five years, giving us enough time to observe key trends from a variety of sources. Ministers have highlighted that they will not wait to publish the first report.

For all of these reasons I did not support the various amendments tabled as requested by some of you. I am very clear that the amendments are unnecessary not least because of the promises made at the last election and the confidence I have in ministers to deliver on such. Food and safety standards will not be dumbed down to get a trade deal. With anyone.

I hope that the above reassures you that we are committed to maintaining our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. We are a world leader in these areas and that will not change.