Food standards; time for MPs to take a stand on behalf of farmers – Timothy Kirkhope
No wonder then that MPs steeped in farming like Neil Parish – the much-respected chair of the Defra committee in Parliament – and York Outer’s Julian Sturdy understand the importance of agriculture to the UK economy.
They, and others, have been fighting in Parliament to ensure that the high standards which we now follow in animal welfare, food quality, and environmental improvements should be maintained.
They also say that our producers should not find themselves at a disadvantage in any future post-Brexit trade deals with countries that do not necessarily follow the same high standards.
An amendment to the Agriculture Bill in the House of Commons, designed to offer ongoing protections and supported by both Neil Parish and Julian Sturdy, was sadly – and unwisely – defeated by the Government which utilised its 80-seat majority.
An attempt to placate rural interests was made by the setting up of a new Trade and Agriculture Commission, but unfortunately its powers do not allow for proper ongoing scrutiny and control in future trade deals of the very important standards we need to maintain because its activities are at present strictly time limited.
Now the Bill has been put before the House of Lords where a relevant “restoration” amendment was passed after much debate.
It specifically required that the new Commission must have the power to make clear recommendations to the Government to “promote, maintain and safeguard current standards of food production through international trade policy, including standards related to food safety, the environment and animal welfare”.
It also requires a report to be produced, before any new agreement is signed, to consider the deal’s impact on the trade of agri-food products.
In the debate in the House of Lords, it was made clear that our farmers have adapted to the changing marketplace, including greater diversification into alternative enterprises, as well as increasing their food production.
Along with that, they have improved their animal husbandry and welfare, including reducing the use of antibiotics in animals by over 50 per cent in the last four years.
Great strength of feelings and expertise was deployed, as would be expected in the Lords debate, before the amendment was passed with a large majority.
The House of Lords was demonstrating a high level of responsibility in its scrutiny of this legislation.
The Bill now returns to the Commons and currently the Government seems intent on reversing the improvements and, once more, leaving us vulnerable to lesser standards and thereby threatening the agricultural businesses in our region that have invested so much in high quality.
No wonder there were demonstrations by farmers and food producers in Northallerton just a few days ago against the possibility of their work being undermined by cheap food imports if future trade deals are not subject to the type of scrutiny now demanded.
The National Farmers’ Union knows how much pressure there has been recently on their members.
For many years, we have seen continuous improvements and investments in the sector which could now be in jeopardy.
It is not too late for our colleagues in the House of Commons to support the sensible safeguards which have been put forward.
No harm would be caused to any negotiations for future trade as, indeed, this would, in my opinion, strengthen the hand of the UK in such talks and, at the same time, provide strong reassurance that our farmers and agriculture-food producers are not being neglected.
We owe that at least to them.
Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate is a Tory peer and a former minister.
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