Hilary in the House of Commons
Hilary in the House of Commons

Lots of constituents have contacted me about the protection of UK environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards and child health in future trade deals. I support the #SaveOurStandards campaign.

While the UK Government’s Trade Bill and Agriculture Bill have been making their way through Parliament, I have supported amendments to safeguard the UK’s high animal welfare, environmental and public health standards.

Unfortunately, however, despite a manifesto commitment not to compromise on these standards in future trade negotiations, the UK Government has not put this commitment into law. The Agriculture Bill, for example, does nothing to prevent British farmers from being undercut in post-Brexit trade deals with countries with lower animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards.

The Bill was amended in the House of Lords to provide legal protection against the import of food produced to lower standards. An amendment was also passed to strengthen the Trade and Agriculture Commission by requiring it to produce a report making recommendations to safeguard in international trade policy our current standards of food production relating to animal welfare, the environment and food safety.

The Agriculture Bill, as amended, would have required a report by the Trade and Agriculture Commission on the implications for British food standards of each individual trade deal agreement agreed, negotiated or concluded by the UK Government, and allow Parliament to vote on each report.

In addition, the Lords passed an amendment on a National Food Strategy which would introduce a statutory duty on the UK Government to publish a National Food Strategy providing a roadmap towards a more sustainable and healthy food production system in the UK. One of the requirements would be to consider improving children’s diets. I have long supported action to tackle childhood obesity and enforce stricter rules around junk food advertising.

Unfortunately, when we debated the House of Lords amendments in the House of Commons on the 12th of October, we were advised that the amendment on the Trade and Agriculture Commission was not in order because it involved financial commitments so we weren’t able to vote on it. I am sorry to say that all the other amendments were defeated by the Government.

This very regrettable because on the one hand ministers say they want to maintain high standards while on the other they have refused to put these into primary legislation.

I spoke in the debate and you can read my contribution below.

We will keep up the campaign.

Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central

Hilary Benn:

(House of Commons Debate on the Agriculture Bill 12 Oct 2020)

I, too, listened very carefully to what the Minister had to say, and I have to say that I agree with the hon. Members for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), because I do not understand the Government’s resistance to putting these sensible changes into legislation. The problem the Government have is that the more they claim to want to do what the amendment is seeking, but then say, “But we can’t do it”, the greater they raise in the minds of everyone watching—farmers, consumers and others, as well as colleagues on both sides of the House—the idea that something else is going on here. So, let us be honest about this.

We all know how trade negotiations work and the pressure that trade negotiators come under. Let us consider the United States of America—with which the Government, to be fair, are very keen to get a trade agreement, because they have decided to move away from the best trade agreements they have, with the European Union. The fact is that that pressure will exist regardless of who wins the presidential election next month. I think the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) put his finger on it when he read from the letter, in which it appears that Ministers are saying, “Well, don’t do this because it will make it more difficult”. But how is doing what the Government promised to do in their manifesto more difficult—and it is only fair?

The Minister talked about undesirable side effects. I listened very carefully but I heard her give only one example, which was her reference to hedgerows in Africa. I understand the point she was trying to make, but it does not really work when we look at the new clause in amendment 16, because subsection (2)(b) talks about standards that

“are equivalent to, or exceed, the relevant domestic standards and regulations in relation to”

the areas we are discussing. Furthermore, the very next subsection gives the Secretary of State the power to determine what those standards are equivalent to. The argument made by the Minister, for whom I have great respect, that somehow there will be a fixed process that would lead to absurdities does not really wash when we read what is actually in the amendment that their lordships have put together.

I want to talk about sow stalls, which were banned here in 1999. No doubt the Minister will be aware of the new cruel confinement law, as it is called in California, which not only bans the use of sow stalls in that state, but bans the sale in California of pork produced in other American states that still use sow stalls. I am advised that that includes Iowa and Minnesota. Could the Government please explain why it appears that California is able to ban food products produced by what we regard as cruel means in other states of the United States of America, but that we somehow have difficulty in doing the same in deciding our new rules.

The final point I want to make is on the new clause in amendment 17. Again, I do not understand the Government’s argument. The Minister said that sector-specific targets were not really helpful, but the basic and obvious point is this: if we are going to meet our climate change targets, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) pointed out, we are going to need progress in every single sector of the economy, agriculture, land use and forestry included. Therefore, it seems that it would be really helpful to have an interim target to help the farming industry to make the changes that we know will have to come. I am pleased to hear that quite a few Government Members will vote for them, but I urge the Government at this stage to think again.

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