Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am delighted to have secured this debate. I grew up in the Pennines, at the heart of livestock production, with spring lambs and suckler cows—both central to the rural economy.
Food habits are currently changing, with a growing trend to vegetarian options and veganism, so farmers rely increasingly on exports to bolster their market. The live trade in animals is small and highly regulated, but important for breeding, showing, racing, in the case of horses, and satisfying an appetite for our excellent produce across the channel—not for horses, of course. This trade helps to keep the price stable. There is no harm in reviewing that trade, but it would be total madness to ban it.
In the brave new post-Brexit world, there will be opportunities for local producers to expand the home market. Shepherds Purse and other cheese producers, Heck sausages and suchlike already enjoy a strong share of the home market, and this could well be developed further. But at the behest of British consumers, UK food producers must meet high standards of production in animal welfare, health and hygiene, as well as high environmental standards.
I remember only too well the unilateral decision to ban sow stalls and tethers in the early 1990s. This had the perverse consequence of pushing consumers into buying cheaper imported pork products, which were not competing fairly nor to the same high standards and put home pig producers out of business. Some 50% of UK pig producers left production.
The genesis of this debate lies in an amendment to the Trade Bill in the last Parliament and the government amendment in name of my noble friend Lady Fairhead, ably supported by the noble Baronesses, Lady Henig, Lady Jones—whom I am delighted to see in her place—and Lady Brown of Cambridge, and me. The amendment clearly stipulated that there should be statutory protection set out in the UK, with a view to
“the protection of human, animal or plant life or health … animal welfare … environmental protection … employment and labour”,
and that these
“UK levels of statutory protection”
will be set out in
“primary legislation … subordinate legislation, or … retained direct EU legislation”.
It is that statutory protection that I seek today.
The NFU, all other farm organisations, green interests and animal welfare groups joined forces in January this year, calling for the Government to ensure that under any future trade deal they might negotiate, the integrity and safety of our standards of production would be maintained, and that imported foodstuffs would meet the high standards of production that our producers meet at home.
Why does this matter? Not just to protect us from chlorinated chicken or hormone-produced beef but to ensure that we do not roll back the years of good husbandry that our farmers have followed across the four nations of the United Kingdom. A vital ingredient to safeguard these will be a trading standards commission that will oversee standards and ensure that any food imports meet our high standards of food safety, animal welfare and hygiene, as well as environmental standards.
There must be a level playing field between UK-based companies and their international trading counterparts. This commission would work closely with the Food Standards Agency and other such bodies. Ideally, it would have been set up by Parliament before the trade negotiations began and would be composed of experts in animal health, animal welfare, public health and safety, as well as representatives of the veterinary profession. Its role would be to certify the accepted standards of production for the purpose of international trade, to ensure that the UK meets the challenges of our climate change commitments based on current science, and to ensure that sustainable modes of production and consumption are met.
I will take this opportunity to counter the argument for cheap food. Food as a percentage of income per household is now at about the lowest level ever. If we import cheap food that does not meet our high standards, we are simply exporting the problem and potentially yet again putting our farmers and food producers out of business. Is this really the Government’s agenda? I cannot imagine for a moment that it is. Their agenda should clearly be to feed the country but to ensure that any food imports do not lower standards, with cheaper production costs leading to less food safety and potentially more food poisoning. We should just look at the incidence of food poisoning in the United States as a comparison.
Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that the Government will press for mutual recognition of sanitary and phytosanitary measures, removing the need for costly and time-consuming export health certification? Will the Government raise this at the next World Trade Organization meeting and in negotiating international trade deals? Will my noble friend take the opportunity today to ensure that we will do our level best to get a deal by 31 December and that World Trade Organization rules will not apply thereafter? A deal needs to be in place with no tariffs. Such tariffs could be up to 60% on lamb production, which I think is the highest level, but their impact would be felt on our livestock production across the board.
Farmers must have full confidence that reciprocal standards are in place and that substandard products will not be accepted into this country. We expect our farmers to go out in all weathers, battling with the elements, to put food on our plates. The least we can do for them and for other food producers is put in place a framework that protects the highest levels of production that we have come to expect from them. Maintaining high standards in the UK is also very important for our food exporters, as UK provenance and quality are prized in markets abroad. I remind noble Lords that the value of the UK’s food and drink exports now exceeds £23 billion and that our products are sold to more than 220 countries.
I turn to the motor industry and car and other vehicle exports. It is essential that a deal is agreed with the EU which guarantees tariff-free trade in automotive products, with a stand-alone rules-of-origin chapter and protocol. The deal must reflect the uniquely integrated nature of UK-EU trade—a warning is apparent now with the drop-off in trade from a third country, China, owing to the ongoing coronavirus emergency.
A new EU-UK framework for regulatory co-operation and dialogue in relation to automotive should be agreed, starting from a position of complete alignment and recognising that the UK and EU currently share the same rules. It should be supported by a robust governance framework, part of which could be provided by the UK trading standards commission that I am arguing for today. The significant cost of additional testing should be avoided by the UK choosing to align with EU technical standards and seeking mutual recognition for its type-approval framework. The UK and EU should agree the most comprehensive and deepest levels of co-operation in relation to customs to minimise delays and disruption on both sides of the border. There should be an agreement on the free movement of staff between sites in the UK and the EU without unnecessary restriction, delay or cost. The UK must ensure preferential trade with third countries, including Turkey, Japan, Mexico, Canada and other preferential automotive partners.
The UK has a long and proud history as a trading nation. Manufacturing, whether of food, cars, lorries, aeroplanes or chemicals, must not be jeopardised as we leave the European Union. These industries provide the jobs and wealth on which this country is based and lie at the heart of unleashing our future economic capability. The Government have an opportunity to provide a gold-standard model for high-standard, high-quality food and other manufacturing production. They must take it and give statutory protection to these industries by establishing a trading standards commission, as I have set out today.
My Lords, I very much support the tone and intention of the Question from the noble Baroness. We must recall that, when the previous Secretary of State for the Environment was in place, he himself supported this suggestion. We would like an indication from the Government today that they will support it as well.
Inevitably, the noble Baroness concentrated largely on the food sector, as will I, but, as she said, this would apply to many other sectors as well. On the day when the European Union is producing its negotiating mandate and we are getting ours, with the Government telling us that in a matter of weeks we will be negotiating also with the United States, we need to be clear on two things. What is the Government’s overall strategy for international trade post Brexit? Domestically, what is their system of accountability to Parliament and civic society?
The problem at the moment is that those who advocated Brexit in one form or another promised different things to different people. They promised consumers cheaper food; they promised environmentalists and animal welfare campaign groups maintained or improved standards; and they promised exporters that their markets would not be closed or subject to punitive tariffs. They have effectively told all of us things that are incompatible with the outcome of renegotiating all our different trade arrangements with the world.
Trade with the United States is not primarily about chlorinated chicken, although the Minister did say the other day that he may be prepared to accept acid-washed chicken. Both those processes relate to very poor hygiene and welfare standards in the poultry farms of the United States. It is worse in some other countries we might make deals with, such as Brazil and other countries in South America. The Government need to be clear that they mean what they say about maintaining the standards that we have reached and operated with the EU over the last few years. They must also ensure that industry, consumers and civil society are involved in any change to those arrangements and that, in principle, we will not opt for trade and cheaper imports on the basis of lower welfare and environmental standards.
If we do the opposite, we will get into some difficulties. If we sign an agreement with the United States that allows in goods produced under poor welfare and low environmental standards, our farmers and producers will say that they need to reduce their standards to compete. We might then find that the EU will close the door to our imports, because we are contaminated by imports from the rest of the world, where they work to lower standards. It is not often mentioned, but it is important to remember that the UK was the leader in establishing EU environmental and welfare standards in the past. Without our presence, some of that consensus in Europe might actually reduce, under pressure from European producers, and so European standards might become lower. It will become a vicious circle throughout the main trading blocs and will lower environmental and welfare standards in developed countries.
The Government can avoid this by being absolutely clear that in no negotiations will they reduce standards, and by talking to the industry about any divergence at all—all of which would be only in an upward direction. Unless we do that, we will cause confusion, con consumers into thinking that they will get better choice and cheaper food, and endanger high-quality production in this country.
That applies to the food sector, and the noble Baroness has already referred to the situation for vehicles. I emphasise that there could be problems in relation to vehicle safety and emissions standards. Even in unrelated areas, such as data protection and the chemical sector, there are similar issues. I ask the Minister to say clearly and unequivocally that we will not, in any circumstances, lower environmental and welfare standards, and that in any consultation we will go back to Michael Gove’s commitment, made not that long ago, to establish a commission.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering for introducing this debate today. I acknowledge the consistent and determined approach she has taken over some time towards the establishment of a trade standards commission. However, I wonder whether linking the establishment of a commission to the opening of negotiations on free trade agreements might not perversely work against the interests of the consumers whom my noble friend seeks to protect. One of the principal advantages of Brexit is to improve diversity in sources of supply, which will be possible once we are freed from the overly bureaucratic and cumbersome EU regulatory framework. As the Conservative Party manifesto stated:
“We want people, both at home and abroad, to be lining up to buy British. And one of the great opportunities of Brexit is the chance to lead the world in the quality of our food, agriculture and land management—driven by science-led, evidence-based policy.”
I draw your Lordships’ attention to the importance of ensuring that our regulations in future must be science-led and evidence-based, and I ask the Minister to give an assurance to that effect. I fear that the EU’s strict adherence to the precautionary principle has to some extent made the UK a less innovation-friendly environment. For example, I do not think that the science supports the EU’s ban on genetically modified food. The president of the Royal Society has argued that, given the need to increase food production by 50% by 2050, we cannot afford to give up on useful technologies, especially to help poorer countries have a reliable and nutritious source of food.
It is surely time to bust the myth about chlorinated chicken. As noble Lords are aware, vegetables and salads sold in supermarkets have all been washed in chlorine, in order to protect the health of consumers. Why does the EU ban chlorine-washed chicken, or, as is increasingly used in the US, lactic acid-washed chicken? As a result, poultry-related illnesses such as salmonella and campylobacter are much more prevalent in the EU than in the US. The effect of the chlorine ban is protectionist, and it is applied not because chlorine is harmful but because the EU believes that it helps to raise farming standards. However, there is inadequate evidence for this. McDonald’s decided to move to free range chickens without legislation in 2015. Furthermore, imagine the outcry from parents if there were a ban on using chlorine to disinfect swimming pools. Surely, chemically washed chicken should be available to consumers here, clearly labelled, so that those who do not wish to buy it would have the freedom to choose to buy another product.
The IEA published a report in June last year which argued that European agricultural production is among the most distorted in the world. Brexit provides an opportunity to adopt a more open and liberal farm policy which should be beneficial for British farmers, producers and consumers. Can the Minister confirm that the Government have already responded to my noble friend’s concerns by establishing the Strategic Trade Advisory Group, chaired by the Minister for Trade Policy and including representatives of all concerned stakeholders, including consumers, industry and trade unions? Does he agree that the establishment of yet another body would be both expensive and unnecessary?
In his Greenwich speech, the Prime Minister said:
“It goes without saying that of course the NHS is not on the table and no, we will not accept any diminution in food hygiene or animal welfare standards.”
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has acknowledged that the EU single market has benefits but also serious costs for Britain’s farming industry. I worry that the establishment of a trade standards commission as proposed would tie the hands of our trade negotiators and would seek to prevent our escape from bureaucratic EU regulations that have kept food prices too high for too long.
Of course, we must and will maintain the highest standards, but regulations are not just two dimensional, high or low. To describe regulations as enforcing high or low standards is subjective. There are many different ways to secure the right balance between consumer protection and encouraging new efficient production methods that will lead to enhanced prosperity for all. It is welcome that, in future, these questions will be decided here in this Parliament.
My Lords, with the permission of the Committee, I will speak from a seated position because I have broken my foot. It was not while skiing.
This debate is incredibly important, because it follows years of debates and votes where your Lordships’ House has made it very clear that the Government must subject themselves to proper scrutiny of our future trade arrangements. It is a delight to have so much common ground with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. Up to now, the Government have failed to set out any sensible proposals on this. Promises to have the best standards in the world are welcome, but they have to translate into legislation.
Over the next five years I am going to constantly remind the Government that they came to power on their manifesto. The words on those pages are now the will of the people, which include the commitment:
“In all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental … animal welfare and food standards.”
That is great, but they must now deliver on that commitment by putting it into law.
A body such as a trade standards commission could play an important role in this, but without strong powers and the ability to hold the Government to account, we can be sure that the Government will simply ignore it, just as they have ignored and delayed the work of so many important bodies by, for example, squashing the Russia report, delaying the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation’s report, and unlawfully proroguing Parliament itself. The Government have proven time and again that they will not do the right thing unless a court orders them to. For these reasons, any trade standards commission must be given legal powers and authority. It might then scrutinise and even veto provisions in trade agreements that are seen to be detrimental—an important safeguard against a Government desperate to secure trade deals.
Minette Batters, president of the NFU, made an interesting comment today when she warned the Government:
“To sign up to a trade deal which results in opening our ports, shelves and fridges to food which would be illegal to produce here would … be morally bankrupt”.
The Government are risking drawing together components in society such as the NFU, the Greens and Extinction Rebellion on one common platform. They would find that quite difficult to handle. Remember, it is the will of the people that our standards should remain high.
These questions of trade and development must also be co-ordinated with our efforts on the climate and ecological emergency. The Government should use our presidency of COP 26 to build agreement around global trade and investment so that the outsourcing and exporting of environmental destruction is ended, and the world economy can rapidly transition to a world-friendly, planet-friendly and people-friendly economy. The Government will find it very hard to reconcile their stated environmental ambitions with their stated trade ambitions. Trade-offs will inevitably be made, and it is essential that we put the right legislative structures in place to ensure that the long-term environmental and social impacts are rightly valued above the short-term economic and political gains.
In our assessment of trade standards, we should focus on the impact not only at home but on our trade partners. Too much of our environmental, ecological and carbon burden gets outsourced to developing countries, which feel the pain of our addiction to consumer-led growth. Water-stressed and drought-ridden countries, for example, extract their precious water to supply our markets for the manufacture of our imported goods. It seems madness that we are potentially making things worse not only here but in other countries. Any trade standards commission must be given legal powers and authority. I would like to hear from the Minister that this will happen.
I am absolutely delighted that chickens get washed in chlorine in America. If they were not, they would be even more disease-ridden than they are before being washed in chlorine—but no way will the British consumer want to eat them, I can assure you. It is the will of the people that we maintain high standards.
My Lords, it is good to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, with her committed remarks, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for obtaining the debate. In another place, over a considerable number of years, I heard her voice raised always for her own homeland and for those matters that she raised so persuasively in her remarks this afternoon in Grand Committee. I found the epithets with regard to the noble Baroness very persistent and strong. Ministers always found it necessary to hear what she said.
Our Library has told us that an estimated £261 billion of England’s total economy in terms of gross value added came from rural areas, and in 2018 the Welsh Government estimated that 78% of land in Wales was used for agriculture. In support of the experienced views of my noble friend Lord Whitty and the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, I wish to emphasise the need, bearing in mind the challenges, for hill farmers. I have in mind the Borders, the Pennines, Cumbria and, in my own case, Wales.
The hill farmer and the sheepmeat industry must survive and prosper and have more, not less support. The hill farmer and the sheepmeat industry face the challenge of climate and contour. We do not sufficiently value the input of the shepherd—be it he, she or they. The shepherd fights that climate and has to cope with the contours and then has to look at the challenges of welfare, transportation, regulation and competition—and they triumph. They do very well, but the nation may be in danger of overlooking this important sector of the economy and of our population and culture.
I am thinking of the far-flung townships and villages on those hilltops and in the neighbouring valleys. I am thinking of the way of life and of these special challenges —climate, particularly, and contour. They should be given more help from Governments of the day. In the case of my own homeland, there is also the cultural value of the language. It is required of Her Majesty’s Ministers to be able to say that the hill farmer and the sheepmeat industry will get the fair deal that the principal speaker adumbrated
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady McIntosh for securing this debate. It is a timely reminder of the role that standards and the UK’s broader quality infrastructure need to play in future trade negotiations. A trade standards commission, with the full involvement of government and key stakeholders, would be one means of ensuring that the strategic and economic importance of continuing high standards, and their effective implementation and enforcement, are central to all trade negotiations and future trading arrangements. Confidence in the safety and quality of goods and services is an essential element of international trade. That matters now, but it will matter even more so after the end of the year.
The Government’s manifesto rightly promised that
“in all of our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards.”
That undertaking was recently reiterated by my right honourable friend the International Trade Secretary when she set out the priorities for future trade deals.
The United Kingdom already has an enviable reputation for high-quality standards in these areas, achieved through the support of successive Governments for a national framework of standards, measurement and accreditation—collectively referred to as the United Kingdom Quality Infrastructure, or UKQI. I should declare an interest, as the chair of the United Kingdom’s national accreditation body, UKAS—the UK Accreditation Service—which is a key component of the UKQI.
To maximise the effectiveness of standards, their implementation needs to be underpinned by robust verification and certification systems. As the national accreditation body, UKAS is firmly established as part of the UK’s regulatory regime in a wide range of areas. These include the sectors that a trade standards commission, and others, would see as priorities, such as animal welfare, environmental management, farm assurance and food safety.
It is also important that standards and accreditation are global activities, and UKAS, as the national accreditation body, and the British Standards Institution, or BSI, as the UK’s national standards body, operate within an international framework. This mutual recognition of standards and accredited conformity assessment between trading partners underpins many international trade arrangements.
Accreditation is also recognised by the WTO’s Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement, and by bilateral trade agreements. That is an important tool that can be utilised to improve competitiveness and facilitate global trade. It ought, therefore, to be an important part of a trade standards commission’s work to look at how accreditation and linked mutual recognition arrangements that underpin standards can be utilised, protected and, where appropriate, enhanced as part of future trade negotiations.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his great experience in this area. I commend, too, the noble Baroness for securing this debate on trade and standards—significantly, the first full debate in this House since Brexit.
In January, at the African investment summit, the Prime Minister said—no doubt to bemused African leaders—that Uganda’s beef cattle,
“will have an honoured place on the tables of post-Brexit Britain … families across Angola will shortly be tucking into delicious wholesome chicken from Northern Ireland”.
It should be noted that Portugal, Belgium, Italy, Spain and France are already more successful meat exporters to Angola than Britain, and that, despite a beef ban because of its inability to control foot and mouth, Uganda’s exports to the UK are worth just $10 million, compared to $132 million to Italy, $115 million to the Netherlands and $95 million to Germany. Brexit has not, as the Prime Minister suggests, been the barrier. Whether the UK is exporting to Angola, Uganda or any other country, standards, we are told, will be a critical component, and our interaction with European standards—Europe being a much bigger market for them—when an African country is exporting to Europe and to us, will be significant.
Can the Minister, therefore, in responding to this debate, also clarify the status of the trade Bill: what will or will not be in it; whether it is still the Government’s intention, as it was previously, that the mechanisms through which trade agreements will be negotiated will be under the procedures of the previous Trade Bill; and the status of the parliamentary lock that the Government earlier indicated that they were committed to? Clearly, they believed that standards were sufficiently important to require a parliamentary lock. If that is no longer the case, why? What will now be the interaction in the trade Bill with Northern Ireland—not just for Northern Ireland chicken but for those trading between Britain and Northern Ireland, and then between Northern Ireland and the European market?
Poultry is a good example of that, and I am glad that the noble Viscount raised it. As we have heard, Michael Gove, when he was Secretary of State, gave a rather glib comparison on TV when he conflated the process of surface-washing salads with chlorine used to mask poor hygiene practices. The EU, with full UK support, has made it clear that good hygiene practice is a prerequisite for the application of hazard-based controls and that they are an essential element of any discussion on market access.
If we are now setting that aside, our discussion on market access has a whole different meaning, and the Americans know it. With the Secretary of State’s equivocation on TV repeated by his successor, it is concerning. These statements should not be made in TV studios. If there is a parliamentary lock that means anything under legislation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said, they should be said in Parliament and we should be given those commitments.
That is important because the US has established a negotiating mandate for both the United Kingdom post Brexit and the European Union for trade agreements. The text is identical for both. Therefore, when the UK says, as David Frost, the Prime Minister’s chief negotiator, said with great confidence in his recent speech, that the whole purpose of the project of Brexit is our ability to move away from the EU rules, how will that interact with the markets that we seek to export to and import from when they have to choose between the European set of standards and the UK’s—or will we ask them to triangulate, because that will be an invidious position for all our industry?
David Frost also said:
“One obvious example I think is the ability to support our own agriculture to promote environmental goods relevant to our own countryside, and to produce crops that reflect our own climate”—
because clearly we have a climate unique in western Europe—
“rather than being forced to work with rules designed for growing conditions in central France”.
This got me scratching my head. Can the Minister outline those rules?
Finally, David Frost also said:
“There are other broader advantages to running your own affairs. One obvious one is that it is much easier to get people involved in taking decisions”.
But we have no mandate set by Parliament, no standards commission, no updated parliamentary approach, no ability to scrutinise when the ink is signed on agreements and no ability to ratify. How exactly will people, and primarily Parliament, be involved?
My Lords, it has been a very good debate, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, on getting her name on the Order Paper early so that we have a good chance, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, to rehearse some of the ground covered in our previous debate on the trade Bill and that is surely to come on the many Bills now stacking up on the post-Brexit situation.
The noble Baroness made a powerful case for a trade commission. It needs more fleshing out around where its powers would start and end, and what position it would occupy, but there is certainly a germ of a good idea there which is worthy of further consideration. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I am sure that the Government will argue, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, that the Strategic Trade Advisory Group takes over that space. That may well be the case, but its advisory nature and lack of engagement with Parliament—points made by other speakers—and our need to ensure a mandate and to have a dialogue with the Government on the progress of trade deals, means that STAG cannot of itself tackle the key questions of maintaining and improving standards in what we make and produce, and supporting UK producers.
Quotes from the NFU president attacking the Government over their current approach to upcoming trade deals on agriculture have already been mentioned. He said:
“To sign up to a trade deal which”
“fridges to food which would be illegal to produce here would … be morally bankrupt”.
We get a sense from that that something is going on, at an important level, around how the Government relate to this question.
The key question from this debate is why the trade Bill amendment asked for by this House and passed with all-party support, as referred to by the noble Baroness, is not taking this trick. The issue is very clear: the question of how you define in law our current standards is one that we addressed in detail in discussions leading up to the amendment being laid. The wording seems to cover
“human, animal or plant life or health; animal welfare; environmental protection; and employment and labour”,
and does so in a way that ties it to the current statutory position—or the statutory position that would apply when any future changes are made. The parliamentary draftsmen have crawled over it and do not seem to have found any fault with it. It was agreed unanimously by this House. It has yet to be looked at by the Commons, but I hope that it will still be in play when the trade Bill is published shortly.
The Government will probably claim that they have said enough on the record in Parliament to avoid any concerns about their bona fides in relation to standards. Indeed, if you read the response given on 5 February by the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, you might be convinced. He said:
“We will stand firm in trade negotiations to ensure that any future trade deals uphold the standards that farmers and consumers across the UK expect.”—[Official Report, 5/2/20; col. 1793.]
The trouble is that saying it is not putting it into statute, a point that has already been made. The Government seem hell-bent on avoiding the large number of legislative opportunities that they have—the Environment Bill, the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill and the trade Bill, which is soon to be reintroduced. Why are they not getting out of the impasse by saying, “We’re going to do it. Relax. It’s all in hand. We have the wording, we have the opportunity and we will have the support of the House and the country to do this”?
I suspect that the answer is that modern trade deals, as I think the Government are now beginning to realise, are much more complicated than simply analysing what trade is to take place in goods and products at what tariff levels. You have to consider the wider regulatory structure, as my noble friend Lord Whitty said, as that underpins quality and safety. You also have to engage with services, which are our main trading operation, and the wider public policy and political issues that that raises.
My concern is that this rather shabby approach to a key question—the constant repetition of a mantra that does not get turned into legislation that will work —is code for the fact that the Government have realised that they have to keep open the options that they need for effectively negotiating a US trade deal and an EU trade deal. But they cannot have it both ways. Surely the danger they face is that, in pursuit of these deals, they will start to trade off our high standards and the quality of our goods and services, make difficulties for our producers, and risk our financial services and the other trades that sustain our economy. I hope that the Government have this in mind.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady McIntosh for raising this important and timely short debate. I also thank other noble Lords who have made such informed contributions this afternoon. I will make a few remarks towards the end of my speech on the trade Bill questions raised by the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Stevenson. Those remarks will be fairly short, but I want to answer some of those questions.
Having left the European Union, this Government have ambitious goals for UK trade. We aim to secure free trade agreements with countries across the globe, covering 80% of trade within the next three years. Removing barriers to trade will give the UK the opportunity to increase prosperity in all parts of our country. This will mean more opportunities for business, better jobs, higher wages, more choice and lower prices, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh mentioned in her opening remarks. That is why we will use our voice as a new independent trading nation to champion free trade and lower barriers at every opportunity.
The Government are mindful of the need to show the benefits of free trade and how these will level up prosperity, growth and opportunity across every region and nation of the UK. Ministers have consistently stated that any future trade deals must be balanced and must work for UK consumers and businesses. We remain firmly committed to upholding high environmental, food safety and animal welfare standards now that we are outside the EU. Several noble Lords sought reassurance on that, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. Upholding our country’s interests will be always be central to the UK’s negotiating approach and in all trade talks we will drive a hard bargain for the British people.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, raised the potential risk to food safety standards. At the risk of repeating myself, as I may well do during my speech, I can say that the Government remain fully committed to upholding our high food safety standards and high levels of public, animal and plant health outside the EU. The Government will stand firm in trade negotiations, to ensure that any future trade deals live up to the values of farmers and consumers across the UK.
Our high standards are an important issue in our independent trade policy. It was of course the UK which established the world’s first national standards body, in 1901. The UK’s reputation for quality, safety and performance is well recognised in global markets. Indeed, it is this high reputation for quality products that drives demand for UK goods and, as such, is key to our long-term prosperity, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh alluded to. In 2018, the last full year for which we have figures, the total value of UK food and drink exports was £22 billion, which helped to support over 1 million jobs in agriculture and fishing, food and drinks manufacturing, and wholesaling. British food is world-renowned for its quality and high standards of food safety. The Government recognise that UK success in the global marketplace depends on us maintaining this reputation, competing at the top of the value chain.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh asked about the transport of live animals. She will know what I am about to say, but this reassurance comes from other Ministers too: we have a manifesto commitment to end excessively long journeys for live animals going for slaughter and fattening. This is an opportunity we have gained through leaving the EU. We intend to issue a consultation shortly on how we will deliver on that commitment. At the same time, food imports are tremendously important to the UK. They reached £47 billion in value in 2018, providing variety, helping to meet seasonal demands and balance domestic demand with UK production, and enhancing our food security.
This Government welcome the opportunity to hear from stakeholders, including the private sector and civil society, and actively seek their views on the development of our new independent UK trade policy. That is why we carried out one of the largest consultation exercises, by volume of responses, ever run by the UK Government. Over 600,000 responses were received, giving views on potential future free trade agreement negotiations with the USA, Australia and New Zealand, and on the UK Government considering accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.
As my noble friend Lord Trenchard said, the Department for International Trade is already drawing on expertise from across the UK private sector and civil society, having established the Strategic Trade Advisory Group—or STAG—as a forum for high-level discussions on trade policy matters between government and stakeholders. The group meets quarterly, allowing the Government to understand the key concerns about the impact of new trade deals and to harness advice, insight and evidence from a cross-section of experienced voices already actively involved in trade-related issues, including trade standards. I reassure my noble friend that I agree with him that this must be evidence and science-based.
I want to address directly the points raised by a number of Peers on the proposed idea for a commission, as suggested by my noble friend Lady McIntosh. Defra and DIT Ministers are working with government colleagues to decide whether a trade, food and farming commission should be set up, or whether existing working groups can carry out this function effectively—a point made by my noble friend Lord Trenchard in his eloquent speech. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, alluded correctly to the fact that this is just an idea and needs fleshing out. However, it is fair to say that this short debate has highlighted the issue, and certainly the points raised will be taken back.
In addition, the department has established a range of working-level expert trade advisory groups, or ETAGs. There are currently 17 ETAGs, covering a range of thematic policy areas, including agri-food and customs ETAGs. Some of these groups are led by other Whitehall departments, including Defra and the Treasury. They facilitate expert technical policy exchanges on specific sector and thematic policy areas. We value highly the role already played by organisations such as the NFU—mentioned by my noble friend—and the Food and Drink Federation, and notable private sector businesses such as Diageo, Brake Bros, Tesco, Morrisons and Berry Gardens, as members of our agri-food ETAG.
DIT also engages extensively with the devolved Administrations on all trade policy issues and the formulation of trade negotiation positions. In January, Trade Minister Burns hosted the inaugural meeting of the ministerial forum for trade, which will play an important role in ensuring that the voices of the nations of the UK are considered as negotiations progress. DIT also runs a substantial programme of official-level engagement, including a senior officials’ group and regular policy engagement, to ensure that the devolved Administrations’ views are input at all levels and all stages of the process. I am reminded of a debate that we had during the first stage of the Trade Bill, which I know that various Peers here were involved in, on whether a forum should be a forum. I had to go back to Hansard to check on that; no doubt it will appear again.
In the context of this strong framework for consultation with business, civil society and devolved government, the Government welcome the offer from the NFU and UK food producers more widely to further engage with the development of UK trade policy. I understand that the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—Defra—is keen to work closely with the NFU and other key stakeholders across the food chain to more fully understand their interests in the impact of new trade deals, and is working with ministerial colleagues to decide how best this advice should be fed into government.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh raised the point of the importance of trade policy to UK manufacturing, broadening the initial theme of the debate. I agree that this is an important issue. To support future negotiations, we have held detailed conversations with automotive and other manufacturers to ensure that their requirements on customs and rules of origin are understood. The UK is seeking to be at the cutting edge of global customs policy, and we have made a public commitment to reduce customs frictions and promote the greatest possible trade with the rest of the world.
Of course, the issue of standards in trade policy is not limited to the UK’s programme of new free trade agreements. The UK is already a strong and clear voice advocating high global standards in international bodies. We work to influence international food safety and animal and plant health standards through participation in multilateral organisations such as the World Health Organization, the World Organisation for Animal Health—the OIE—and the International Plant Protection Convention. This enables us to ensure that the interests of UK consumers are taken into account when global standards are set.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, spoke about the impact of UK trade policy on developing countries, and she made an excellent point. We agree that the UK has a moral obligation to support developing countries to take advantage of the opportunities that international trade offers them. I will say a little more about that. Through our role in the WTO’s Standards and Trade Development Facility, the UK contributes to building the capacity of developing countries, including our partners in the Commonwealth, to meet international agricultural standards for trade. This enables them to export more produce and supports their economic development. Trade is a key driver of economic growth that can transform a country’s economy, helping to raise incomes, create jobs and lift people out of poverty. For this reason, the UK is committed to working with other countries to encourage the international co-operation that creates open and competitive markets, and will continue to encourage and empower developing countries to play a role in shaping the global trade system. This will also benefit businesses and households in the UK by generating jobs, improving standards of living and keeping prices low.
I promised to say a bit about the trade Bill before I conclude. I cannot say too much, but I owe several noble Lords an answer. As they will know only too well, following the Queen’s Speech, the Government have confirmed that the trade Bill will be introduced in this parliamentary Session, and the Bill is an important element of the UK’s independent trade policy now that we have left the EU. I will say a little more. In addition, the Government are committed to transparency and the appropriate scrutiny of our trade policy. We will ensure that Parliament and the public are given the opportunity to provide input as we take forward our independent trade policy.
Therefore, prior to the start of negotiations for each new free trade agreement, the Government will publish their approach to negotiations, including their objectives. Once negotiations are under way, the Government will continue to keep the public and Parliament informed via regular updates. We believe that this approach strikes the right balance, as it allows Parliament to effectively scrutinise our trade policy while preserving our constitutional arrangements and ensuring that the Government can negotiate effectively and in the best interests of the country.
I hope that I have reassured the Committee, in this short time that I have had to address it, that, as we embark on our first free trade negotiations for over 40 years, the Government are working hard to establish a bold and exciting independent trade policy that will realise our vision of a global Britain. The foundations have been laid and the preparations made. As I said just now, shortly we will publish our negotiating objectives for the US, with our other priority partners Japan, Australia and New Zealand following soon afterwards. We will be guided throughout these negotiations not only by the UK’s economic interests but by the values of the British people, to deliver a new generation of world-leading trade deals that deliver for every nation and region of our United Kingdom.