Rishi Sunak mistakenly votes against the Government as farming policy overhaul passes through Commons

MPs defeated a Tory-led attempt to add further guarantees to post-Brexit food imports standards as the biggest change in farming policy for a generation passed through the House of Commons.

The Agriculture Bill cleared its final stage in the House of Commons today, with 360 MPs voting for it and 211 against.

A Labour amendment attempted to force the Government to produce an emergency food plan in light of the coronavirus, however this was defeated by 352 votes to 221.

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And Tory MP Neil Parish, chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. also called for food imports to match the UK’s high standards in order to protect farmers and consumers.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak in Downing Street, London, on the first day of the easing of coronavirus restrictions to bring the country out of lockdown. Photo: PAChancellor Rishi Sunak in Downing Street, London, on the first day of the easing of coronavirus restrictions to bring the country out of lockdown. Photo: PA
Chancellor Rishi Sunak in Downing Street, London, on the first day of the easing of coronavirus restrictions to bring the country out of lockdown. Photo: PA

His amendment was defeated by 277 to 328.

Conservative MP Simon Hoare said without this change to the Bill “food imports to this country would be cheap for no other reason bar the fact that they were raised to lower standards”.

Mr Parish said US food imported to the UK “cannot undercut our present production methods” and animal welfare.

On the amendment vote Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak accidentally voted against the Government.

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Mr Sunak was among a “small number” of MPs who voted the wrong way as the new Commons remote voting procedure had its second outing.

The division list showed 22 Conservative MPs voted for the rebel amendment to the Bill, although they included Mr Sunak.

A source close to Mr Sunak blamed “online teething problems”, adding: “The Chancellor did not intentionally vote against the Government.

“He called the chief whip straight away to explain.”

After she announced the result of the vote, Deputy Commons Speaker Dame Eleanor Laing said: “I have been informed that there are a number of members, a small number of members, who have inadvertently cast their votes by electronic means in the opposite way to the way in which they had intended to vote.

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“I’m informed that their use of technology was not quite as good as they felt that it ought to be and that a few members have made a mistake.

“There is no provision under the current temporary system by which a member can change their vote once it has been cast.

“But I am satisfied that even if a small number of votes had been cast in a different way, it does not affect the result of the division.”

Following the blunder, Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard could be heard asking in the chamber: “How many members of the Cabinet voted the wrong way?”

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Government deputy chief whip and Pudsey MP Stuart Andrew was heard replying: “Just the one. He’s a very busy man.”

Earlier, during the vote on the amendment, Mr Pollard could be heard joking with Environment Minister Victoria Prentis: “Make sure you press the right button.”

She replied: “I have done. I think.”

Mr Pollard told the Commons that not including food standards in the Agriculture Bill could lead to a “race to the bottom”.

He said: “The political handcuffs placed on the Environment Secretary and his ministers to tie them to oppose these reasonable, sensible, necessary and essential amendments betray the bigger political agenda at play here.”

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However Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Minister Victoria Prentis said that all EU import standards will be converted into domestic law by the end of the transition period.

She told the Commons: “I’d like to reassure colleagues that all food coming into this country will be required to meet existing import requirements.

“At the end of the transition period, the Withdrawal Act will convert all EU standards into domestic law.”

Ms Prentis said the amendments tabled by Mr Hoare and Mr Parish could have “unintended consequences”.

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She told MPs: “While we all want to support British farmers, if passed, these well-meaning amendments would have unintended consequences.

“The supply of food would be significantly disrupted if goods that meet our current import standards were to be blocked.”

York Outer MP Julian Sturdy said it was imperative standards remained high.

He said: “I very much support, as other members do, the broad thrust of this Bill, which has been much improved over time.”

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But he added: “The laudable aims of this bill will come to nothing if the Government doesn't secure fair terms of trade for UK producers.”

Backing the amendment on guarantees on import standards, he said: “Our producers have worked and invested for decades to raise our standards and this could easily be lost if they're set at a structural disadvantage by allowing in a flood of low quality imports, produced with poor animal welfare standards and environmental standards, as well as economic damage to British agriculture and to the social fabric of our rural communities that this could ultimately cause.”

Keighley MP Robbie Moore said the Bill was a “once in a generational opportunity to shape our farming sector for the better”.

But he said the amendments proposed, while he agreed with their aims, would not be “workable” and was not compatible with World Trade Organisation rules.

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He added: “I personally spoke to the Prime Minister this morning and he assured me that our strong animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards will not be compromised, and I accept such reassurance. But I look forward to making sure that those reassurances are upheld.”

The Bill will now progress to the House of Lords.