Green groups are highly critical of the UK government’s new trade and agriculture commission and have labelled it a ‘diversion’, arguing standards must be protected by primary legislation.
Concern has been growing that UK food, animal welfare and environmental standards will be sacrificed to secure new trade deals. A series of high profile campaigns and petitions have been run by the National Farmers Union, consumer watchdog Which? and the Food Research Collaboration to highlight these fears.
The government responded by establishing the trade and agriculture commission to advise the government on trade negotiations, to ensure UK standards are not lost. But public health is not represented among the commission’s 16 members, and there is only one environmental group.
Environmental charities have said primary legislation is the only way to protect standards, and ensure changes don’t slip through without scrutiny. A chance was missed to protect standards in the UK Agriculture Bill, and the government promised that it wasn’t needed as they would be written into the new Trade Bill. Prior to that the government said no protections were needed as the Withdrawal Act transferred EU law into UK law.
The Trade Bill is due to have its third reading in the UK Parliament on Monday (20 July 2020), and Friends of the Earth is concerned that MPs could be told (and may believe) that they don’t need to guarantee standards in legislation because they now have the commission.
Friends of the Earth trade campaigner Kiera Box said: “Even if the commission was as good as it could be, even if it had great representation, even if it had a really wide scope and proper scientific knowledge on there, and it had proper bite, it still would not be a replacement for putting these things in primary legislation; and also putting in adequate scrutiny provisions for future trading arrangements that ensure that we will always be able to see any attempt to downgrade our standards.
“So even though this is terrible, and it is, it's worse than we might have expected. However good it was, it was never going to do what the government hoped, which is distract us from the fact that we still need bans and we still need scrutiny no matter how many commissions we have.”
The Department for International Trade yesterday declined to comment but did say the commission has ensured that there is a cross-section of representatives across agriculture, consumer, animal health, international development, hospitality, food SMEs and retail.
Box added: “I think the fact that they think that's a good range of people to represent the issues demonstrates that they feel that the agricultural commission will basically be limited in scope to issues which are about ensuring farmers remain economically competitive. It demonstrates really if those people are meant to cover every issue, that the environment isn't on the table as a concern.”
Box argued that while the commission would have sub-committees and would be inviting environmental charities and NGOs to take part, she thought that take up would be low as this was “insulting” when the right people needed to be on the committee, it has no powers, and trade negotiations are already underway.
Greenpeace UK's head of politics Rebecca Newsom agreed primary legislation was needed, and said: "There’s one simple thing the government can do to provide a cast-iron guarantee to farmers and consumers - commit in law that all food imports will meet the same standards as food that is produced in the UK.
“Yet this is the one thing the government has repeatedly refused to do. In a world where consumers are demanding more nature-friendly products, Britain should put the environment and UK farmers first, rather than risking a race to the bottom in a desperate attempt to bag a grubby trade deal."
Newsom was also critical of the commission’ chair Tim Smith for describing the debate around chlorinated chicken, in his first intervention since being appointed, as “alarmism” in a Telegraph piece (paywall). She said this showed the “omens aren’t good” for the commission.
The Greener UK coalition was also frustrated with the commission’s lack of teeth, and its head Sarah Williams said: “Without big improvements this commission will be little more than a fig leaf for the government’s continued failure to commit in law to banning substandard imports.
“The body lacks the required transparency and powers to maintain standards in future trade deals, and its membership raises serious questions over its ability to address environmental issues. More green voices are needed.
“Time is running out for government to fulfil its promise of maintaining high food, environmental and animal welfare standards.”