Government overturns measures aiming to guarantee UK food standards in new law
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MPs have overturned measures aimed at protecting UK food standards in future trade deals, despite a Tory backlash in the Commons.
They voted 332 votes to 279, majority 53, to disagree with a House of Lords amendment to the Agriculture Bill which would have required agricultural and food imports to meet domestic standards.
Peers had made the change to block the import of foodstuffs produced abroad with lower animal welfare standards, amid warnings over chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef entering the UK market from the US.
Several Conservative MPs also outlined their support for the Lords amendment, with the division list showing 14 rebelled in an attempt to retain it – including former environment secretary Theresa Villiers and Scottish Conservative Party leader Douglas Ross.
But it was stripped from the Bill following a vote on Monday.
The Government argued that existing protections are already in place and they have no intention of watering them down.
Speaking as Lords’ amendments to the Bill were considered, senior Tory Neil Parish said the legislation was heading in the right direction but the UK should be a “great beacon” on animal welfare and the environment when negotiating future trade deals.
The chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 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’?”
Conservative Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire), intervening, expressed “frustration” over ministers suggesting the food standards protections need to be put in other legislation.
Mr Parish added: “We, the British, believe in animal welfare, we believe in the environment… so does this Government, but for goodness sake getting the backing of Parliament.”
For the Government, environment minister Victoria Prentis said the Government will not change the law of the land on import standards “under any circumstances”.
She told the Commons: “The fearmongering must stop tonight. We are not going to be importing chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-treated beef. That is the law of this land.
“This Government is not going to change it under any circumstances and we have said very clearly that in all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise our high environmental protection, animal welfare or food standards.
“We have a range of tools to protect us, we have the existing regulation, we have parliamentary scrutiny which I detailed earlier, including the select committee which I for one think is significant.”
Ahead of the debate, a tractor demonstration took place in central London as farmers demanded food standards are upheld in post-Brexit trade deals.
RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood, reacting to the vote on food standards, said: “Tonight, the Government once again failed to make good their manifesto promise that they will not sell out the UK’s animal welfare for a quick trade deal.”
SNP environment spokeswoman Deidre Brock added in a statement: “By refusing to enshrine into legislation the high standards that currently protect us, Boris Johnson’s Government has fired the starting gun for a post-Brexit race to the bottom, which threatens our superb food and agriculture sectors and risks flooding our stores with low-quality produce.”
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, also 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.”