Cornwall’s MPs have explained why they voted against an amendment to an Agriculture Bill which critics say would have protected food standards in the UK.
The government bill came back before MPs on Monday with amendments which had been made by the House of Lords.
Among these was a condition designed to ensure that food imported into the UK would have to meet the standards applied to food produced in the UK following Brexit.
However the amendment was voted down with all six of Cornwall’s Conservative MPs voting against it.
This led to widespread criticism from people who are concerned that the move will lead to poor standard food coming into the UK and also affect the livelihoods of farmers in the UK who have to meet the high standards.
Critics say this could lead to lower quality meat products coming into the UK – such as chlorinated chicken – including those which are currently not allowed due to standards set by the EU.
Some claimed that Cornwall’s MPs had broken promises to farmers in the Duchy by not voting to uphold high food standards.
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Several Conservative MPs rebelled against the government, including Devon MP Neil Parish. And Plymouth Labour MP Luke Pollard, the shadow environment, food and rural affairs secretary, 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.”
But the Cornish MPs have responded saying that those safeguards are already in place and the amendment was not required.
George Eustice, MP for Camborne and Redruth as well as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “We already have the legal powers to protect our food standards and animal welfare so the amendment tabled was not necessary. As farming minister I ensured that our manifesto had a clear commitment to protect and uphold animal welfare standards in future trade deals and to ensure that our farmers are not undermined by unfair competition.
“The Government will deliver this through a combination of measures including a prohibition on the sale of meats treated with hormones or chlorine, a chapter in any future trade deal that sets out the requirements for foreign countries as far as food safety is concerned, and the use of tariff policy to prevent producers with low animal welfare standards having unfair access to our market.”
St Ives MP Derek Thomas said: “The Agricultural Bill is a fantastic piece of legislation which guarantees that the UK will have the highest standards for animal welfare, food standards and environmental protection and to guarantee this, a Trade and Agriculture Commission has been set up to provide advice on maintaining these standards in upcoming trade deals.
“The Government has also committed to publish food security reports at least once every three years and, to provide farmers and land managers with the information they require to plan ahead, there is a new requirement to publish Multi-Annual Financial Assistance plans 12 months in advance of a plan coming into force.
“However the UK cannot legislate to regulate the quality of food produced in other countries and amendments put forward which require imports of food and agricultural goods to meet domestic standards are much wider ranging than those we have in place today. Such conditions are not in place for imports under trade agreements negotiated during our membership of the EU and they would make it very difficult to secure any new trade deals.
“I have also been contacted by people with concerns that the legislation will allow ‘super trawlers’ to fish in protected areas.
“At the moment, under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), the UK cannot control who fishes in UK waters. The UK Fisheries Bill, which replaces the CFP, requires all vessels who seek to fish in UK waters to have a license from the UK Government. So-called super trawlers would be subject to this and the Government can legally restrict access to Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) then.”
Steve Double, MP for St Austell and Newquay, commented: “The Agriculture Bill presents an amazing opportunity for our country to regain autonomy over our farming policy after 40 years of EU control. No longer dictated to by bureaucrats who do not understand our domestic interests, we can now establish our own trade system, delivering specifically for British farmers and the environment for which they so diligently care.
“It is of the utmost importance that the UK upholds high standards on all our food, not only to ensure the welfare of animals and the health of the British people, but also to enable our fantastic farmers to thrive as we trade with countries around the world.
“That is why I was pleased to stand on a Conservative manifesto which explicitly made clear that in all our trade negotiations we would not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare or food standards. In this respect, the government is firmly on the side of British farmers and is proud to espouse such high standards, particularly in the realm of animal welfare. Far from endangering those standards, the government’s clear policy is, in fact, to increase them.
“Please be assured that the government is continuing to implement a number of key measures to ensure this is the case.
“The first thing to note is that our country has existing regulation concerning our import standards. This is monitored carefully by the Food Standards Agency and includes the ban on chlorinated poultry, and that on importing beef which has been produced using artificial growth hormones. These and other such standards regarding animal welfare are rigorously maintained by regulation from the FSA, independent of government.
“The government has also made it clear that all Parliamentary Committees involved in scrutinising potential trade deals will be given at least ten sitting days to ensure that no standards have been breached.
“This, importantly, is bookended by wider parliamentary scrutiny, where, at the end of negotiations the final agreement text will be laid in Parliament for 21 sitting days under the procedure of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. This will give more than sufficient time for MPs to examine every detail of any trade deal.
“Bearing all this in mind, the reason I have voted for the Agriculture Bill, rejecting the House of Lords amendments, is because the amendments in question are very broad and provide minimal clarity above what is already enshrined in law. They would do very little to impact our food standards, and instead would oblige the government to impose an unnecessary and ill-defined set of conditions on future free trade agreements.
“I understand concerns that a threat to food standards on imported goods is a threat to the ability of our farmers to compete whilst maintaining high standards of their own. However I hope the above shows that this is clearly not the case.
“The amendment would also require all trading partners to have processes in place to show that they meet thousands of pages of UK domestic environmental and animal welfare legislation. The cost would be prohibitive and also unnecessary.
“We import bananas from many countries including the Dominican Republic, Belize and Cameroon. We import coffee from Indonesia, Ghana and Vietnam and black tea from Kenya, all under existing EU rules.
“These amendments would have meant that we can no longer import from these countries because they do not meet our own domestic environment legislation. For example stopping imports from Kenya or Indonesia because they don’t meet our carbon emission targets or follow the same laws when farmers have specific times of the year when they are allowed to cut their hedges to protect nesting birds. It is not economically or morally appropriate to expect other countries to follow exactly the same laws as us, many of which they don’t follow for economic reasons, or can’t due to simply having a different geographic make-up to the UK.
“I also often have concerns raised with me about the US’s chlorinated chicken and a potential scenario where this could be sold in the UK following the passing of this Bill. But we already have a UK law banning any product other than potable water from being used to decontaminate meat. This means that currently it is illegal to sell chlorinated chicken in the UK and would remain the case unless Parliament made it legal to do so.
“Finally, it is worth mentioning the key role that the Trade and Agriculture Commission has been playing and will continue to play specifically in ensuring British farmers are not out-competed by international trade. After discussions with the National Farmers Union, the Commission was established in July and has since set up three working groups covering consumers, competitiveness and standards. Out of these, the Commission recently launched a call for evidence to enquire how standards can be best maintained whilst also securing the trade benefits that this new post-Brexit season will afford. The report it is set to produce will be debated by Parliament later this term, and I look forward to continuing to play my part as an MP in ensuring all aspects of our wonderful British economy can thrive.”
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Sheryll Murray, MP for South East Cornwall; Scott Mann, MP for North Cornwall; and Cherilyn Mackrory, MP for Truro and Falmouth have not yet responded to our request for comments.