Food standards protections put into the Agriculture Bill by the House of Lords were voted down on Monday evening (12 October) but campaigners argued the story is not over yet.
The House of Lords voted through a range of amendments to the Agriculture Bill last month (September) to protect food, environmental and animal welfare standards, but these were all rejected by the House of Commons.
A key component was the amendment to ensure food products coming into the UK should be of the same standards as those produced within it.
Farming minister Victoria Prentis said the UK government was "absolutely committed” to high standards. CIEH criticised Westminster for continuing to pay lip service to protecting “cherished” food standards, without commitment in legislation.
Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of the Sustain food and farming alliance and chair of the Future British Standards Coalition said the news that the Lords amendments had been rejected was “dismaying” and urged parliamentarians to “step up” to save food standards.
Shadow environment minister Daniel Zeichner said all was not lost yet. While it would be unusual for the Lords to continually reject a pledge made by a UK government contained within its election manifesto – under the Salisbury convention – in this case he said the reverse is happening: the Lords is voting for amendments in favour of a Conservative election promise to maintain standards.
Zeichner argued this, combined with the UK government’s haste to meet transition deadlines, presents the Lords with an opportunity. The Environment Bill, for example, is also late and Zeichner could not see how it would meet the 1 December deadline. So despite the Conservative party’s strong majority of 80, there is still potentially room for negotiation.
He said: “There's a whole range of things which mean the government is under some pressure to get legislation through a bit more quickly. And that is something, of course, the House of Lords and the opposition can do – it can slow things down, which means the government may be prepared to compromise.
“So we will use every tool in the box, to try and get the improvements we're looking for.”
Zeichner added there was strong support for an amendment to strengthen the Agriculture and Trade Commission, which in its current form he said was little more than a “fig leaf”. This amendment was not voted on due to a technicality, but this will be corrected by the Lords and sent back to the Commons where further Conservative rebellion could be expected.
The amendment would put the commission on a permanent footing, with wider representation. “But most crucially of all,” Zeicher added, “it was insisting that any trade agreements are actually approved by parliament. There's a bit of an argument about this going on, but that's the key bit in our view.
“So my best guess is that the government might be able to bend a bit around having some form of permanent commission and they may be prepared to negotiate a bit on who's on it. But I very much doubt whether they're going to concede the right for parliament to actually have a say on the final trade deal.”