Concerns that UK food standards will be watered down to secure a trade deal with the US were raised in the House of Lords’ second reading of the Agriculture Bill.
The reading yesterday generated hours of debate with complaints that not everyone who wanted to speak had been able, and calls to extend the time. However, the bill was passed to the committee stage.
Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Conservative) repeatedly told the session that food standards would be safeguarded, specifically mentioning chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated meat. He said that these would not be permitted under new trade deals. He argued that elements of the debate had been “unduly negative” and that the bill represented “great opportunities”.
Gardiner referenced the 5 June joint letter from the secretaries of state for Defra and for the Department of International Trade, which also committed to maintaining standards. However, a number of media reports on the US trade talks have suggested chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated meat are still on the table and many organisations are deeply concerned – including CIEH.
The Earl of Shrewsbury (Conservative) said: “None of us would ever be naive enough to view politics as a squeaky clean business. Indeed, its waters are always somewhat murky. A manifesto can be interpreted in many different ways to suit those implementing it. Words and language can have more than one meaning. Legislation can be altered by numerous different mechanisms, some not requiring a vote.”
Lord Grantchester (Labour) said the joint letter did not recognise “the strength of feeling that a clear majority of the public” wanted certainty in law that food, animal welfare and environmental standards would be maintained. He added that the key concern of every correspondence he had received on the bill focused on this issue.
Lord Krebs (a crossbencher) said: “The government claims that food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards will be the same for domestic and imported food. What independent scrutiny will there be of this commitment? It is often said that the UK has high animal welfare standards. However, we should be aware that the reality is that many other European countries are already ahead of us."
He pointed out that beak trimming of hens is banned in six European countries but not in the UK, and that France and Germany planned to ban the castration of piglets without anaesthetic by the end of the year. He said: “Does the UK intend to catch up with the best in the world, or will it join the race to the bottom in the pursuit of new trade deals?”
The Lord Bishop of St Albans said food security must be a “top priority” for any government, which the pandemic where “shop shelves were stripped bare” had highlighted. He said: “This is an agricultural issue. It's an environmental issue. And it's a social justice issue.”
Lord Kilclooney (crossbench) asked for the government to give assurances that there will be no checks or tariffs on Northern Ireland agricultural exports into Great Britain. He said: “Sixty per cent of our exports are into the British market. Very important that that is maintained.”
Kilclooney wanted confirmation that the UK government did not want to have lower standards of food safety than in the European Union. “As Northern Ireland has to retain the EU standards on the protocol because such lower standards would result in reduced costs of production and make it more difficult for Northern Ireland agricultural producers to compete in the GB market.”
He added: “Will UK support for Northern Ireland agriculture be unquestioned or will the exemption from the EU state aid rules become null and void if the joint committee fails to reach an agreement? Does this in practice mean a continuing EU veto over UK support Northern Ireland agriculture?”
Lord Gardiner responded, saying Northern Ireland remains part of the UK customs territory allowing the UK to ensure “unfettered “market access from goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and “the arrangements we introduce will reflect this”.
But he added there would be “pragmatic” and “proportional” checks and assurances required for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, “to protect supply chains and the biosecurity on the island of Ireland as a single epidemiological unit. The protocol establishes that Northern Ireland will align with EU sanitary and phytosanitary rules.”
Gardiner added: “So far as the issue of the wider state aid framework after the transition period, this is a matter on which the government will set out its position in due course. The government will continue to ensure that agricultural support schemes now, and in the future, are compliant with the UK's domestic legal framework.”