MPs last night 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, including York Outer’s Julian Sturdy and Colne Valley’s Jason McCartney, also outlined their support for the amendment as the Bill returned before the Commons for further debate.
But it was stripped from the Bill following a vote yesterday.
The Government argued that existing protections are already in place and were included in the Conservative manifesto, adding they have no intention of watering them down.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said today the legal protection “wasn’t necessary” and the Government had given assurances to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) that it would “protect and uphold our standards”.
Mr Eustice said: “We will be maintaining food standards – it’s a manifesto commitment.
“We’ve already got legislative processes that protect those standards and so this clause wasn’t necessary to protect those standards.”
Speaking in the debate, Mr Sturdy said he supported the main thrust of the Bill but added: “This is an important piece of legislation and we have to make sure that we get it right.”
Leeds Central Labour MP Hilary Benn said: “I do not understand the Government’s resistance to putting these sensible changes into legislation.
“The problem the Government has 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.”
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.
Critics fear that foreign suppliers without the same level of food standards would be able to undercut British farmers under future trade deals, putting them out of business.
Peers had also wanted MPs to vote on strengthening the Trade and Agriculture Commission, allowing it more powers in advising on trade deals to protect farmers, however this was not debated after ministers used an obscure rule to argue the move would impose an extra cost, which would go beyond the power of the Lords.
Mr Sturdy said: “I really do think that the Minister should look at strengthening the role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission in the way the amendment suggests. I know that, technically, we cannot vote on it or debate it tonight, but I do think, as she has already heard from Members across the House, that this issue is not going to go away, and it must be addressed.”
Speaking after the votes, he added: “Although the amendment was defeated, as it was when we made a similar stand in May at the Bill’s Commons Report Stage, I hope the continued resistance on clear legal guarantees for UK food standards by me and Conservative colleagues should embolden the House of Lords to again insist on tougher protections, which the government will have to respond to in the House of Commons again.
“I will certainly continue to press the Government to make good on their commitments on food standards on behalf of my constituents, and North Yorkshire’s important farming sector and environmental assets.”
RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood said: “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.”