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Trade Agreements: Food and Farming Standards

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 19 November 2020

What steps the Government are taking to maintain food and farming standards in future trade agreements. (908984)

What steps the Government are taking to maintain food and farming standards in future trade agreements. (908991)

What steps the Government are taking to maintain food and farming standards in future trade agreements. (908997)

What steps the Government are taking to maintain food and farming standards in future trade agreements. (908999)

What steps the Government are taking to maintain food and farming standards in future trade agreements. (909005)

What steps the Government are taking to maintain food and farming standards in future trade agreements. (909009)

The Government are firmly committed to our manifesto pledges to uphold our high environmental, food safety, and animal welfare standards. Under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, our current standards are taken into UK law, and the Secretary of State has now placed the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government’s actions in strengthening the Trade and Agriculture Commission firmly dismiss the rumours that UK food standards would be compromised as a result of Brexit?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Placing the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing will ensure that public and industry interests are advanced and protected in Britain’s agriculture and trade policy. As the National Farmers’ Union said,

“This significant commitment to primary legislation on food standards, both in the Agriculture Bill and the Trade Bill, is exactly what we have been calling for.”

The farmers of South Cambridgeshire are some of the most efficient and environmentally friendly in the country, but they have concerns that they might be undermined in any trade deal by imports that are produced to lower animal welfare or environmental standards. They strongly welcome the Government’s decision to put the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing—a move also welcomed by farming and environmental groups across the country. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what role the commission will play during trade negotiations, to ensure that standards are maintained?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is a reliable supporter of farmers in his constituency. The agri-food trade advisory group will feed in during the negotiations. He also asked about the TAC, and I wish to use this occasion to praise its chairman, Tim Smith, for the excellent work that he has done so far, and in very good time.

Colleagues across the House welcome the news about the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s statutory footing. It will be a strong voice for our farmers, and it will also provide expert independent advice for this House as we consider the impact of each trade deal on agriculture. When does the Minister expect those amendments to be tabled, and the Trade Bill to resume its progress?

We plan to table that amendment to the Trade Bill on Report in the House of Lords. The scheduling of business is obviously a matter for business managers, but we intend the Bill to be completed by the end of the transition period.

I represent a rural constituency, North Norfolk, where farming is the lifeblood for so many. My farmers are delighted about the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s statutory footing, and that move has also been applauded by the National Farmers Union. Will the Minister reassure my constituents that the commission will protect animal welfare and farming standards, and help to allow the farming sector to assess the deals that come forward for that important sector?

I know from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State how important farming is in Norfolk, in both her constituency and that of my hon. Friend. Farming has a strong voice on the Trade and Agriculture Commission, and the NFU, NFU Scotland, NFU Cymru, the Farmers Union of Wales, and the Ulster Farmers Union are on it. It puts UK farming at the heart of our trade agenda, and allows the sector to help advise on our future trade deals.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The extension of the Trade and Agriculture Commission has been greatly welcomed by farmers across Ynys Môn, and it shows this Government’s commitment to upholding our high food standards. What feedback has the Minister received from Welsh farmers regarding that move?

My hon. Friend is a strong and passionate voice for Ynys Môn farmers, and the feedback has been extremely positive. Putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing has been welcomed by NFU Cymru. Indeed, its president, John Davies, said that this

“is a milestone moment and one that should be welcomed by all those who care about our food, environment and high standards of production.”

Latest figures show that the UK’s agrifood sector is now worth £122 billion to the UK’s economy, and there is plenty of room for growth. As we set out into the world as an independent global trading nation, will my right hon. Friend confirm that, even though we have the weight of the Trade and Agriculture Commission in place, UK agriculture will be at the forefront of his mind in future trade negotiations?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and—crucially—we would never want UK agriculture to be sidelined from our trade agenda. We need and have UK agriculture fully on board, to take advantage of selling our fantastic British food and drink produce to foreign markets. Already, for the first time in many years, we are selling beef to the US and pork to Taiwan, and we have secured better agrifood protection in our recent UK-Japan trade deal.

According to blind tasting, French champagne has nothing on sparkling wine from the south downs. Hambledon, Wickham, and Exton Park are vineyards that produce brilliant wine in the Meon Valley, and we have some of the best produce in the UK. Will our free trade agreement support that burgeoning industry?

I look forward to tasting some of this Meon Valley wine, although I have to say that 9.39 in the morning might feel a little early. Our commitment to promoting British wines is very strong. Among the potential 70 geographical indicators in the UK-Japan comprehensive economic partnership agreement deal are English wine, English regional wine, Welsh wine and Welsh regional wine. We are in regular contact with WineGB and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association to help to promote this vital industry.

After listening to those Whips’ questions, I think I would like some English wine as well, Mr Speaker.

I had a long and detailed discussion with NFU Scotland on Monday. In its words, it is “really worried” about future trade deals. Fundamentally, the UK is a high cost, high food standard regime. It argues that it simply cannot compete with low cost and lower food standards elsewhere. Is it not now time for the Government to change tack, and include chapters on food, animal welfare and standards in trade agreements?

I studied very carefully the hon. Gentleman’s amendment during the passage of the Trade Bill. In many ways, he had an even more extreme amendment than the Labour party in terms of trying to dictate our trade partners’ domestic production standards. That would have killed off a huge amount of our trade with the developing world. He mentions NFU Scotland. I thought I would go directly to the source. I am reading here from The Scottish Farmer, which I recommend he reads. NFU Scotland president, Andrew McCornick, said in The Scottish Farmer only last week, on putting the TAC on a statutory footing:

“This is a huge step forward.”

Putting an organisation on a statutory footing is one thing, but protecting food standards is something different. I think the Minister’s answer is what Americans call doubling down on a previous mistake. Let me give an example. UK egg producers simply cannot compete with imported eggs produced where the density of laying hens may be twice that permitted in the United Kingdom. The only way they could do that would be to massively lower food production and animal welfare standards, something we know from the recent Which? survey the public are implacably opposed to. Is it really the Government’s intention to be on the wrong side of food standards, the wrong side of animal welfare, the wrong side of the farming industry and the wrong side of public opinion?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He mentions the Which? survey. I was delighted to be the guest speaker at the launch of the survey, “The National Trade Conversation”, where we discussed many of these aspects. To be absolutely clear to him again, our commitment that there will be no lowering of standards on animal welfare, food safety and the environment is absolute. I urge him again to get with the trade agenda and listen to NFU Scotland, which says it will

“strive to ensure that the best interests of farming, food and the drink and the public continue to be front and centre of any trade deals.”

That is exactly the right approach being taken by NFU Scotland. I urge him and the SNP to get on board with that positive approach for the first time, please.

The Government say that they want to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, but some of its members allow growth hormones, genetically modified food in animal foodstuffs and insanitary conditions for animals. The CPTPP is already in operation, of course, and trade is permitted between its members on the basis of lower animal welfare and food production standards. How does the Minister plan to renegotiate the CPTPP to exclude the lower animal welfare and food production standards it contains, given that existing members of CPTPP say that they will not allow new members to change the agreement?

The Secretary of State and I have told the hon. Gentleman time and again at the Dispatch Box that nothing in any trade agreement prevents this country from carrying out its own domestic regulation. We have been absolutely clear that a lot of the production methods and food standards he describes will remain illegal in this country after 1 January. He mentions CPTPP. I urge him to get on board with a positive agenda. Joining CPTPP, a trading group of 11 countries, including Canada, Singapore and Japan, will be a fantastic opportunity. I am not expecting him to support it, because of course he never supported trade deals with those countries in the first place, but I might hope he could reconsider now.

Let us head to the Chair of the International Trade Committee up in Scotland, Angus Brendan MacNeil.

A very good morning to you, Mr Speaker, on the day you have been waiting for: the day of the first report on the UK-Japan comprehensive economic partnership agreement from my Committee. I am sure that you are looking forward to reading it. Indeed, we are hoping to have a debate in your Chamber, Sir, before the end of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act process—just to let you know.

On food and farm standards, yesterday we heard from Tony Abbott, the former Australian Prime Minister and now adviser to the Board of Trade, who said that when he had an important deal to do with China, he took the state premiers of Australia with him. I wonder whether the Ministers at the Department for International Trade will consider doing the same for important trade agreements, taking the Welsh Minister, Jeremy Miles, the Northern Irish Minister, Diane Dodds, and the high-flying Scottish Minister, Ivan McKee, who might indeed be leader of the Scottish National party and First Minister one day. We need that to happen given that the UK Government are ready to burn particular sheep farming in Wales and Scotland by being outside the 45% tariffs. It is not just our standards, but the standards of our neighbours that are really going to matter for farming.

I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for that, and I look forward to reading his report. When it comes to the devolved Administrations, we all need to respect the devolution settlement, which says that trade policy is a reserved matter and the UK Government carry out their negotiations on behalf of the whole United Kingdom. It is also right, however, that we consult the devolved Administrations, which is why, since May, when I took over the role of interaction with the devolved Administrations in this Department, I have had six meetings with Minister Ivan McKee. We have the quarterly ministerial forum for trade. I have already described how NFU Scotland, two farming unions of Wales and the Ulster Farmers Union are on the Trade and Agriculture Commission. We also make sure that our trade advisory groups include representatives from the devolved Administrations. Our commitment is clear to negotiating the best possible deals for the whole United Kingdom, while making sure that voices from Scotland and the other devolved Administrations are very much included.