Trade and Agriculture Commission: Role in International Trade Deals — [Hannah Bardell in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:27 am on 21st July 2021.

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[Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on 27 April 2021, on the Trade and Agriculture Commission, HC 1346.]

[Hannah Bardell in the Chair]

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member) 2:30 pm, 21st July 2021

Before we start, I would like to make an announcement. As everybody will be aware, the weather in London is very hot, so Members who are wearing jackets are welcome to take them off and speak without them; I am sure the public will have significant sympathy. I have also permitted the Doorkeepers to remove their jackets, so that everybody can stay conscious.

Members will be aware that social distancing is no longer in operation, but I remind them that Mr Speaker has encouraged us to wear masks between speeches. Members participating physically and virtually must arrive for the start of the debate and are expected to remain for the entire debate. I also remind Members participating virtually that they must leave their camera on for the duration of the debate, and that they will be visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks at westminsterhallclerks@parliament.uk. Members attending physically, I will be grateful if you could clean your spaces before you use them and when you leave the room.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 2:31 pm, 21st July 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission in international trade deals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I am delighted to see support from colleagues from across the House on this issue, including Kerry McCarthy, a former member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and a very good one; Geraint Davies; and my hon. Friends the Members for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) and for Keighley (Robbie Moore), who are all current members of the Committee. I also thank my fellow Devon MPs, my hon. Friends the Members for East Devon (Simon Jupp) and for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who also join us.

I called for this debate because I am concerned about the lack of urgency from the Government in matters relating to the Trade and Agriculture Commission—both the non-statutory body and the statutory body. During the passage of the Agriculture Act 2020 and the Trade Act 2021, serious concerns were raised by me and many other MPs, as well as the farming sector and non-governmental organisations, about the potential impact of free trade deals on the UK’s high environmental and animal welfare standards. The creation of the TAC was important in reassuring us that the Government listened to those concerns. The non-statutory TAC published a report on 2 March this year, providing the Government with 22 recommendations on how best to advance the interests of British food, farming, producers, consumers and trade deals. Summer recess is upon us, Minister, and we are almost five months on from that report, but we are still in the dark about what the Government will provide in response.

I know the Minister is very capable, but I cannot understand why it has taken him and his Department so long to response to the Trade and Agriculture Commission. I have repeatedly asked the Trade Secretary when she will respond the report. As Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I first wrote to her on 29 April. I wrote to her again on 26 May after I did not receive a reply. I then received what I can only describe as a holding reply from the Trade Secretary on 10 June. To be blunt, Minister, the Trade Secretary’s reply says very little and I suspect was just an attempt to buy more time. In her reply, the Trade Secretary agreed that the UK’s approach to agrifood should be “bold and ambitious”—hear, hear, I agree—but refused to expand on the Government’s response to the exact recommendations made by the TAC or provide any date for when the Government will respond. I have since written to her again to press on this.

Perhaps our able Minister can update us on when the response will be published. It needs to be now. We have an agreement in principle with Australia, but we are not clear whether the Government have ever read the report and taken it on board before pursuing a trade deal that directly impacts on our farming sector and the quality of food, both environmentally and in animal welfare. It is also as though the Government intend to bypass the advice they commissioned. I am, to say the least, disappointed about that. During the passage of the Agriculture and Trade Acts, I was led to believe that the TAC would be a useful tool to help us during negotiations because it would clearly set out our trade policy. However, I received a response from the Minister very recently that stated:

“The role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission is not to advise on negotiations.”

Likewise, the Secretary of State has said that the TAC

“was tasked with providing advice towards an overall strategy regarding the UK’s future trade policy” but was not

“set up to influence…trade deals.”

That is putting the cart before the horse. We should be basing our trade negotiations on an overall strategy, especially when those deals will set the tone for what will follow.

We urgently need a response to each of the 22 recommendations in the TAC report. In case Members have not read it, one of the most important recommendations was that we establish a list of core standards that would safeguard us in all future trade deals. That would prevent our farmers from being undercut by imports that have been produced in ways that we would not tolerate.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

The hon. Gentleman is making compelling points. Can I suggest to him that in fact, with the agreement with Australia, the pass has already been sold? What other country with which we have now to enter into agreements is going to accept anything less than Australia has been given?

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. Although I agree with him up to a point, we have only a deal in principle with Australia. The final parts have to be done, and we want the new Trade and Agriculture Commission up and running to fulfil its legal responsibilities. There is time to recover from where we are.

A list of core standards would prevent our farmers from being undercut by imports that have been produced in ways that we do not tolerate here. We do not have one. At present, there appears to be a lack of joined-up thinking between the Government’s trade policy and their food and farming policy. British farmers are being told by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to raise their already world-leading environmental and animal welfare standards while their basic payments are being reduced. At the same time, the Department for International Trade is potentially allowing them to be undercut by foreign suppliers that are not held to the same high standards.

We need a very clear strategy on what exactly our key standards are and what the mechanism to enforce them in free trade deals is. That must be in place before we negotiate a deal that will allow hundreds of thousands of tonnes of Australian agriproducts into our country.

I expect that the Minister will tell us that the non-regression clause on animal welfare standards is the first of its kind in a free trade agreement. I would hate to think that the Minister introduced that clause just to make it look as though we are taking steps to protect our animal welfare standards when in fact very little may be achieved. I hope he can enlighten us.

Without that core list of standards on which we will not compromise, what is the point of a non-regression clause? We first need to know which measures we cannot regress. The Australians already have practices that, if we were to adopt them here, we would consider regressions. In Australia, the practice of mulesing sheep is permitted, egg-laying hens are kept in battery cages and chickens can be washed with chlorine. Cattle can be transported on journeys lasting up to 48 hours. The Australians are still using organophosphate dips, which were banned in this country in 1999 because of health risks to farmers. I saw their impact on my own father’s health; he used almost to bathe in the dip, which he should never have done. It is a nasty product.

We must set out very clearly what measures we will not accept and then sign a non-regression clause. Henry Dimbleby, who the Government asked to conduct an independent review of our food policy, endorsed that approach in the national food strategy. One of the strategy’s key recommendations is that the Government define minimum standards for trade and the mechanism for protecting them. Mr Dimbleby also raised concerns about the precedent the Australian deal sets and about not having that set of standards in place. He says:

“The way we do one trade deal inevitably feeds into how we do the next. Brazil—which has significantly worse environmental and welfare standards than our own, or indeed Australia’s…is also being lined up for a trade deal. If we are seen to lower our standards for the Australia deal, it will make it much harder to hold the line with Brazil —or the next potential trading partner, or the next.”

As Mr Dimbleby says, more deals are in the pipeline and the nature of them will be driven by what has gone before in the Australia deal. The likes of New Zealand, the US, Brazil and Mexico will be all looking at what we have given away to Australia and licking their lips.

Mexico has four times as many laying hens as we do, more than 160 million in total, and 99.8% of them are kept in conventional battery cages in very cramped conditions. That practice has been banned here for almost a decade. We will have to be clear in the negotiations that we will not accept such eggs, but the Mexicans will see that we have conceded to the Australians. Why would they not ask?

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, much of which I agree with, but I am afraid that I do not agree with point that every single trade deal will find itself being similar to the last. The Mexicans may well ask about having their eggs included in the trade deal, but it is up to our trade negotiators to say no. We have that power and that ability. Does he not see the value of our negotiators standing up for our own British produce?

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Yes, he is absolutely right that it is absolutely possible for our trade negotiator to stand up for these conditions, but until we have got this Trade and Agriculture Commission and the core principles in place, how on earth will we be certain that is going to happen? We will have to be clear in negotiations that we will not accept these eggs.

Likewise, I have been very critical recently of Brazilians and their environmental record, given the massive increase in deforestation that we have seen under their current Administration. If we signal to them that we are willing to compromise on our standards, that would completely undermine our negotiating position before we even get to the table. At a time when we are passing the Environment Bill and supposedly setting world-leading laws on deforestation, that would be such a failure of joined-up thinking.

The second key recommendation by the TAC report, which we need a response to, is that we need a proper export strategy if our producers are to benefit from these opportunities. In particular, we need an export council to co-ordinate our export efforts and an increase in the number of agricultural councils as a priority, so that we can have counsellors all across the world, as the Australians and others do. We also need to have a better link between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the DIT. The TAC argues for a dedicated Minister for agrifood trade who will work across Government; I would be very interested in hearing the Minister’s views on that suggestion.

One thing that I am very keen to see is an expansion in the number of agriculture counsellors that we have abroad. The UK has an agriculture and food council in just two of our embassies, in China and the United Arab Emirates. These were funded largely by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board. The US spends over $200 million on its foreign agriculture services to help its exporters to break into markets, with offices in over 90 countries. Recently, Australia has been spending 20 million Australian dollars on its network of agriculture counsellors around the world, who operate in 15 locations across Europe, South America and Asia. New Zealand has a network of 22 counsellors; it has eight counsellors in China alone, because it knows that it is challenging but important to enter a new market that presents a prime opportunity for exports. It has a very senior official based in China to lead on the ground, who comes from New Zealand’s equivalent to DEFRA. That is what the Chinese really want—somebody very senior in China to negotiate these deals.

The New Zealanders are very good at getting technical specialists on the ground. In some markets where the rules are strict, they have policy counsellors but they also have veterinary counsellors, who have the technical knowledge to work around the requirements for importing into new markets. They learn exactly what needs to be done on standards for imports, but they also help to produce the right legal paperwork. They do so by building networks with the local equivalents of DEFRA, the AHDB and the Food Standards Agency. They do all that before they enter into negotiations for a trade deal. We need to emulate this model and we need to crack on with it before deals are signed, or we will not have the framework in place for exporters to benefit from a deal straight away.

As I mentioned, the AHDB funded the agriculture and food counsellors already in Beijing. The New Zealanders’ veterinary counsellor in Brussels is funded 50% by industry and 50% by Government, because the New Zealand AHDB equivalent recognises the value of veterinary counsellors in getting a route into a market. I would like to see the Treasury stepping up to find more agrifood counsellors. The Trade Secretary has suggested to me that there could be potential for some money to be made available, but I am unclear how much will be forthcoming. I recently questioned the Prime Minister about this in a Liaison Committee hearing. He stated that he was especially devoted to increasing food and drink exports in more embassies across the world. While I have the Minister here, let me ask him whether the Secretary of State has had conversations with the Prime Minister about Government funding to increase the number of agrifood counsellors.

We could look at the New Zealand system, and fund through the Treasury and half through the AHDB levy boards. Farmers and our food producers pay levies worth more than £60 million a year, which are supposed to be spent directly to further the interests of the trade. We have needed to reform the levy boards for some time and give the farmers more say in how they are run and how the money is spent. One thing we could ask them is whether a higher proportion of their levies should be spent on opening markets and getting their products abroad. I think that they would take up that suggestion.

We urgently need the new statutory TAC up and running. The Government are dragging their feet in appointing a chair and members. I believe that the expression of interest for members of the new body has now closed, but only very recently, so where are we on getting those who expressed their interest on to the commission to make it operational? It is not just about the chair and the members; the commission needs an independent secretariat and the technical capacity to get into the deal and draw on the views of stakeholders. The Government have refused to say what support the TAC will be provided to examine complex technical documents. Will the Minister clarify how many staff the TAC will have? Will it have the capacity to commission its own modelling and technical analysis?

I would also like the Government to allow the TAC to have a broad view of its responsibility so that it can provide expert advice on all matters relating to trade and trade standards. A narrow interpretation would look only at the aspects of a deal that require an immediate amendment to UK law. The TAC will need a broad view of where a deal may incentivise practices that we wish to put a stop to, such as deforestation. Putting into our list of core standards, for example, the principle that we will not eat any food produced on land that has been deforested, alongside measures to cut deforestation in the Environment Bill, which was mentioned earlier, would set a truly world-leading standard and encourage our global partners to follow suit. If the TAC does not examine those sorts of serious issues because it has a narrow remit, we would miss a great opportunity to tackle them in a joined-up way. That would also undermine our negotiating position, as I mentioned earlier.

On a positive note, I welcome the recent commitment from the Trade Secretary that Parliament will have three months to examine the final Australia deal. That is a step forward. It would be better, of course, if we had an opportunity for meaningful scrutiny of a draft deal, or even the possibility of rejecting a bad final deal. I therefore ask the Minister whether the TAC will get advance sight of the deal to conduct its analysis so that its report on it can be published alongside the final text at the start of that three-month period. Or will the TAC get to see the details at the same time as everyone else, meaning that it has to rush its analysis and produce a report late in the scrutiny stage? A rushed report would add little value to our scrutiny and would not be in the spirit of the legislation that makes provision for the TAC.

I will conclude. First, will the Minister give us the date on which the Government will respond to the TAC’s report, and will that response take on board its recommendations? Secondly, we really must have a list of core standards on which we must not compromise. Thirdly, we need an overarching strategy for agricultural and food trade that joins up with our policy at home and abroad. Fourthly, that should include more agrifood counsellors and an export council. Fifthly, I would like to see the Government hurry up and set up the statutory TAC so that it is ready to provide scrutiny on the Australia deal, as it is legally obliged to. Finally, we need some detail on what support the statutory TAC will have. Will it have the technical capacity and staff to fulfil properly its role and ensure that the interests of our farmers and producers are looked into?

Colleagues will know that I am a man of almost limitless patience, but I have to say, I am running out of it. This has taken far too long. We need some answers and we need them now.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member)

I would like to call the SNP spokesperson by 3.28 pm. Depending on interventions and to be equitable to all Members, I would hope to give four and a half minutes to each Member.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Transport) 2:49 pm, 21st July 2021

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee, Neil Parish, on securing this debate. I have lost count of the number of times we have debated these issues over the last few years.

In my view, it is very clear that the Trade and Agriculture Commission, in both its iterations, was brought into being only to give the Government a get-out clause—to buy off potential rebels on the Agriculture Bill and the Trade Bill who shared my concerns and those of many others, including the National Farmers Union, about the Government’s real position on protecting our current environmental and welfare standards in future trade deals.

Despite all the rhetoric that we got from Government Ministers when we questioned them at the EFRA Committee and in the Chamber, it was obvious that something was up, because the Government refused to enshrine these protections in law and came up with excuse after excuse for why they did not need to do so. Minister after Minister said, “Trust me.” We just did not. So they came up with this mechanism—the TAC—and, while some of us remained highly sceptical, others thought that maybe it might just work. We hear today from the Chair of the Select Committee, as I am sure we will hear from other speakers, that patience is wearing thin.

I want to focus on what it says in the national food strategy—I have the great big document here with me— which was commissioned two years ago by the Government. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton has mentioned the overlap between some of its recommendations. In part one of the strategy, which was published a year ago, last July, one of the recommendations was that the Government should

“commission an independent report on all proposed trade agreements, assessing their impact on: economic productivity;
food safety and public health;
the environment and climate change;
society and labour;
human rights;
and animal welfare. This report would be presented alongside a Government response when any final trade treaty is laid before Parliament.”

The Government adopted that recommendation but did not implement the two other recommendations on trade—on giving preferential tariffs to food products that “meet our core standards” and on giving Parliament

“the time and opportunity to properly scrutinise any new trade deal.”

Part two, which was a larger piece of work, has just been published. Recommendation 10 calls on the Government to:

“Define minimum standards for trade, and a mechanism for protecting them.”

It says the Government should draw up

“a list of minimum standards which it expects imported food to meet in support of the objective of a healthy and sustainable food system” and that the Government should “defend these standards” in any future trade deals, stating that the Government need to “set out a mechanism” by which they propose to do that.

The strategy sets out compelling arguments on why the Government needs to act and to act now before we start seeing trade deals with Australia, Brazil or the United States, which can produce food much more cheaply than we can, but at a much higher cost.

I have asked the Minister several times about our trading relationship with Brazil, and what we are doing to stamp out links to deforestation in our food supply chain. I do not really expect any better answers today, but I want to ask him what response we will get from the Government—from DEFRA, which has responsibility for the National Food Strategy, but also from the Department for International Trade—to the recommendations that I have just outlined.

Will the Minister respond today on these two points? First, will the Government ask the TAC to draw up a list of core standards covering food safety, animal welfare, use of antibiotics and the prevention of severe environmental impacts, such as deforestation? Will he do that? These are the absolute minimum standards. They are not something that should be negotiated away. That would not remove our negotiators’ freedom to negotiate trade deals, because these things should not be on the table in the first place. Secondly, if he does not accept the suggestion that when striking new trade deals, the UK should offer to lower tariff barriers only on products that comply with those standards, will he explain to us why?

Setting out minimum standards to be defended in any future trade deals and setting out a mechanism to defend them—I really do not think that is too much to ask. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Photo of Neil Hudson Neil Hudson Conservative, Penrith and The Border 2:54 pm, 21st July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell, and to follow Kerry McCarthy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Parish on securing this debate. I very much agree with the points he made forcefully and eloquently. It is indeed a privilege to serve under his chairmanship as a member of the EFRA Committee. I declare a strong professional and political interest as a veterinary surgeon and as the MP for Penrith and The Border, which is home to many fantastic Cumbrian farmers who produce superb food to the highest production standards.

Many constituents have been in touch to express their concerns about the free trade agreement with Australia and what it might mean for our local farmers and producers and for animal welfare standards. I share their concerns. Broadly, I welcome the possibility of a mutually beneficial trade deal between our two nations, but it has to be the right one. Although we have so much in common with our closest friends in Australia, our economies are very different, and any trade deal should reflect that.

For example, when it comes to livestock farms, the costs of production are much lower in Australia, and the animal husbandry methods are very different. I say that as someone who has worked as a vet on farms in both the UK and Australia. It is vital that we have a thriving UK food production industry that is not undercut by imports. I am clear that any deal must not disadvantage our farmers and food producers, or compromise animal welfare. That is why I have repeatedly called for animal welfare chapters to be included and tariff rate quotas to be used.

I am pleased that the Government have listened to my calls for an all-important animal welfare chapter in the agreement. However, we are still unclear on the detail of the chapter and on the exact use of tariff rate quotas to safeguard any deal. Importantly, we still await the Government’s response to the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s report. When I asked former TAC chairman Tim Smith about those issues during our EFRA Committee session in April, he said he would be

“squeamish about allowing a tariff to sort the problem out”.

He went on:

“You are absolutely right, Neil, that there is a gap, but I just have to cross my fingers and hope, in some ways, that the negotiators, some of whom we spoke to during the course of our investigations and report, have read the report”.

We are still going into these deals in the dark and hoping for the best. We can make it work, but we need urgent parliamentary scrutiny to ensure that any trade deal is not rushed through, and we need the TAC to be reconstituted immediately to help with the process. Parliamentary scrutiny needs to be meaningful, and it must include the option for the House and relevant Select Committees such as EFRA and International Trade to amend and potentially block deals rather than just delaying them.

I will continue to stand up for the farmers in Cumbria and across the whole United Kingdom. We have the best farmers and we produce great food using high standards. We should be very proud of that. By promoting high animal welfare standards in the UK and using animal welfare chapters in our free trade agreements, we can be a beacon to the rest of the world, driving up animal welfare standards globally. It would be an excellent use of some of our international aid budget to help farmers in the developing world to farm and rear animals more sustainably.

I deeply regret the Government’s decision to cut our aid budget and not return it to 0.7% as soon as possible. That will have devastating impacts around the world in healthcare programmes, nutrition and water programmes, and in supporting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. I continue to urge the Government to restore the 0.7% as soon as possible.

Finally, we can get this right. If we do, everyone will benefit—farmers, the wider public, and, very importantly, animals right around the world.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West 2:58 pm, 21st July 2021

I am very pleased to serve under your chairpersonship, Ms Bardell. As you know, I have been involved in the Council of Europe as a trade rapporteur. I am also a member of the EFRA Committee. I very much welcome everything that Dr Hudson has said. I serve on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, and we looked at this important issue as well.

The Government refused to put a list of welfare and other standards and constraints in the Trade Bill. They said that the Trade and Agriculture Commission would act as an advisory body that would provide information to Parliament so that we could make an informed decision before trade deals were made. We can see that the Government are not taking this seriously because, since 2 March—almost 22 weeks ago—the 22 recommendations made by the Trade and Agriculture Commission have not been responded to. There is great concern that the Government are desperately trying to sign off any deal as quickly as they can, irrespective of the welfare and industrial implications. We have taken evidence to that effect in our Select Committee.

It is important that we realise that Australia will serve as a benchmark. I appreciate the intervention of Anthony Mangnall, who seemed to think that we could have different standards for different deals, but the World Trade Organisation will judge that, so we cannot have inconsistent standards. The standards in Australia are significantly worse; the Chair of the Select Committee, Neil Parish mentioned that cattle are allowed to travel for 48 hours instead of 24 hours, and sheep are subjected to horrendous removal of the skin on their buttocks—without anaesthetic for 44% of them, and with some sort of pain relief for 40%. The Australians said they would stop that practice in 2012, so we cannot really trust them on their word to improve welfare standards if it is not in their competitive interest to do so.

I am sitting in Wales, and I know that the average size of a sheep farm in Australia is 100 times that of the average farm here. We also know that the Government are looking to agree a tariff and quota system, with a 15-year phase-out of the tariffs. The quota that has been allowed for 2022 is four times the amount that was allowed in 2020—25,000 tonnes, rising to 75,000 tonnes by 2022. At the same time, farmers are having their farm payments withdrawn. Some environmental payments will be phased in, but not at as high a level. Obviously, there will be cash-flow issues. With lower costs, with the problems that we are experiencing over exports to the EU and with extra imports, the situation looks pretty dire from the industry’s point of view.

The Australian negotiator Dmitry Grozoubinski gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, pointing out that over 20 years, the Australian share of the beef market in the United States developed from a non-entity to hover at about a third of value. The US has a much bigger population, but we eat more beef. We are in danger of being swamped by beef that is produced to lower welfare standards.

This Australia deal looks to form a precedent for the subsequent deals with Mexico, Canada, India, Vietnam and so on, and we need to get it right. We cannot have a situation where we do not get the right advice from the Trade and Agriculture Commission, and then we are faced in the final hour, as we were with the EU, with deal or no deal—this or nothing.

It is imperative that we get these things right for the long term. Let us remember that international trade deals are treaties that trump domestic law. There is no good our passing some sort of welfare or animal sentience Bill and having a special committee that says that we will embed the interests of animal welfare in all our decisions, because that law would be trumped by international trade treaties. We need to get it right; we need it to be informed; we need parliamentary democracy; and we need to work together, so let us do that. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

Photo of Simon Jupp Simon Jupp Conservative, East Devon 3:03 pm, 21st July 2021

It is pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I thank my neighbour, my hon. Friend Neil Parish for securing this important debate. Between us, we represent most of east Devon. This corner of the south-west has a proud tradition of agricultural excellence and a keen eye on the future, thanks to state-of-the-art training courses at Bicton College in my constituency.

This year’s Devon county show, which was held in my constituency, amply demonstrated the agricultural sector’s strength locally. The county show also brought ongoing concerns from across the industry into sharp focus. As the Government continue their superb efforts to strike trade deals around the world, we must remain mindful of the amount of change facing our farmers and always work hard to bring them with us. They are, after all, the custodians of the countryside.

The Government state that the UK’s high domestic environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards will never be undermined. Scare stories about chlorinated chicken are for the birds but, crucially, not the birds in our beautiful countryside. International trade deals will prise open opportunities for farmers across the United Kingdom, and we have already seen those trade deals bear much fruit. We are now shipping British beef to the US for the first time in 20 years, with industry estimates suggesting that that will be worth £66 million to the industry over five years. Because we have opened up the market for beef and lamb to Japan—worth £127 million over five years—it is possible that the Japanese will enjoy the delicious taste of Devon Ruby Reds in the future.

Although the opportunities are obvious, we also need to listen to concerns from the industry as we embark on our journey into this brave new world. The Trade and Agriculture Commission will play an important role and must be put on a statutory footing with a clear structure and dedicated support. A date must be set for it to become fully operational, sooner rather than later. The commission released its report in March with 22 recommendations, and we are yet to see a response from the Government. I encourage the Government to pay close attention to the recommendations on core standards and an export strategy, in particular. Standards are a crucial issue for consumers, so that they can have confidence in what they buy off the shelves.

I recognise that the Government have a lot on their plate at the moment. Ultimately, the commission’s work will help to decide what is served at the dinner table. We have many opportunities that we can grasp for the good of food producers across the country, and helping the sector to realise the potential of international trade must be a priority. Our farmers have fed us for generations. Any deal we sign must look after them and the agriculture industry, and not undercut them. I want our food, produced to exceptionally high standards, to feed people across the globe. In my view, trade deals and a permanent Trade and Agriculture Commission are central to achieving that aim and will take the entire industry with us.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:06 pm, 21st July 2021

It is a real pleasure to serve under your leadership and chairmanship this afternoon, Ms Bardell. I give my huge thanks to Neil Parish for characteristically introducing this debate, which is of such importance.

The Trade and Agriculture Commission reported in March and made 22 recommendations. Here we are, two thirds of the way through July, and we have heard nothing in response. There has been inaction on responding to the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s recommendations and lots of action on the negotiation of a deal with Australia. Why this mismatch and inequity—frantic effort on the deal, and Olympic-standard heel-dragging when it comes to dealing with the Trade and Agriculture Commission’s recommendations? It does not make any sense.

One’s best guess is that the Government set up the Trade and Agriculture Commission under pressure from the National Farmers Union and others in order to appease their Back Benchers and get through Third Reading, among other things. People fell for that, but I believe the Government’s plan all along was simply to disregard anything that their new watchdog said. That shows contempt for the very good people on the Trade and Agriculture Commission, and for the commission itself. It shows even more contempt for Cumbria’s farmers, rural communities and the agricultural community right across the country. In fact, it shows contempt for the Conservative Government’s own Back Benchers.

Among the recommendations—I will just pull out two—is the proposal for the development of core standards that have to be met before a deal can be agreed. In other words, that would ensure that standards are not reduced and that farmers are not undercut and ruined by any deal. To push ahead with trade deals of any kind, but particularly one with Australia, which has demonstrably lower trade, agriculture and animal welfare standards than ours, is to deliberately throw Britain’s farmers under a bus.

One of the other recommendations is to improve the modelling of the impact assessments. In other words, it is to ensure that the Government, Members of Parliament, farmers and consumers can be sure of the consequences of each trade deal before it is signed. We should know before it is signed whether a deal will increase or undermine the quality of animal welfare, reduce animal welfare standards or damage the livelihoods of British farmers.

The failure to produce proper impact assessments resonates with other failures that the Government are inflicting on our farmers. The movement from the basic payment scheme to environmental land payments will clearly create a position where our average livestock farmer depends for 85% of their revenue—their business income—on the basic payment scheme. The basic payment scheme will be got rid of before there is a replacement scheme to fill our farmers’ pockets and keep them farming. Yet at the same time the Government are introducing golden goodbyes to get rid of farmers, with no plan for new blood. That can be seen in our county of Cumbria, where the Government have failed to intervene and save the Newton Rigg agricultural college. Where is the new blood? Where is the confidence in British framing in the future? We ask that especially as we see that the Government’s plans for trade deals will undermine the livelihoods of so many farmers. We say we have the best farmers in the world. Yes we do, but do the Government understand why? It is because of good regulation and culture. The culture of British farming is rooted in the small family farm that not only breeds good-quality animal welfare—close husbandry—but also means that we take care and look after the landscape.

We saw earlier that Liverpool has lost world heritage site status—we could speak more about that. It reminds us that that status is not sacrosanct and can be taken away. The landscape of the Lake District is a world heritage site. If we see the Government undermining family farmers in Cumbria, across our beautiful county and the Lake District, we will not be surprised if the killing of that important goose that lays the golden eggs for our local economy leads to a ravaging of our landscape, and we lose world heritage site status. The Government must answer those 22 recommendations before any deal is signed.

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire 3:11 pm, 21st July 2021

It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Ms Bardell, and to follow Tim Farron, who serves with me on the all-party parliamentary group for farming, which I chair. I thank the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and congratulate him on securing the debate. If the Government do accept the TAC’s recommendation that a Minister for agrifood should be created, I could think of no one better for the job.

I am delighted to speak in this debate because farming is so important to my constituents. According to the House of Commons Library, Brecon and Radnorshire is 48% agriculture and 47% forestry. We are beef and sheep farming country, on which thousands rely. I make no apology for consistently standing up for my famers because it is not just about the way they look after and produce our food, but also, in my constituency, about the way they look after the countryside, jobs, views, language, clean air, water and soil. Agriculture is the beating heart of my constituency and I want it to stay that way.

However, farmers in Brecon and Radnorshire are rightly concerned about the future of their industry. They want their children to have prosperous jobs to inherit. That is why I campaigned for the creation of the Trade and Agriculture Commission and lobbied Ministers to ensure that it be put on a statutory footing. I thank the Secretary of State again. I was keen for there to be Welsh representation on the commission and am delighted that NFU Cymru and the Farmers Union of Wales were both heavily involved. I urge the Government to make that a formal part of the TAC. At lunchtime, I met a group of farmers who were clear that they want us working together. Trade is, of course, a reserved matter, but they want the Welsh and UK Governments to work closely together to make their lives just a little bit easier.

I was listening to Geraint Davies as he reeled off his list of complaints about the Government. He said nothing about what the Welsh Labour Government are doing to farmers in Wales with their “draconian” nitrate vulnerable zones plan. That is not my word, but how my farmers described it. I wish he would recognise that his Government have a role in that.

It has been said that the deal with Australia will serve as a blueprint for any future deal. That simply is not true; otherwise, the deal with the European Union, which is zero-tariff, zero-quota and the first time in history that any such deal has been agreed, would have served as a blueprint for the deal with Australia. Of course it has not, so I challenge that point.

However, I do agree with my hon. Friend Neil Parish that the Government should be going as fast as possible. Farmers do not want to stand still. They want every opportunity to trade their way around the world. I have known the hon. Gentleman for many years. We have worked together well, so I hate to disagree with him, but I think he is being a tad harsh on the Government when he criticises them for not formally appointing members to the TAC. That process is under way, because I have been encouraging my farmers to get involved, so I think he is being a little tough on the Government. I do want the Government to put their foot down on this issue and work quickly to create the commission. Again, I urge them to find ways for Members of this House to engage with the commission, so that we can make sure that the voices of our constituents are heard loud and clear.

My final point, as I am conscious of time, is that the membership of the commission needs to be the practical voice of farming—not the men in posh suits but those with dirty fingernails who really understand what it is like on the ground for a day-to-day farmer.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:14 pm, 21st July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. I congratulate Neil Parish on securing the debate. This time last week we were here talking about fishing. Today it is agriculture, dealing with many of the consequences of the promises that were made to the staple industries of many of our rural communities prior to our leaving the European Union. We are perhaps now seeing some of the disjunction between the rhetoric of the time and the reality of today.

The hon. Gentleman outlined the history of his and others’ interventions on the Trade Bill and the Agriculture Bill when they were before the House. I observe gently in passing that today’s debate illustrates very well the truth that Opposition Members and Government Back Benchers are never in a stronger position than when Governments are facing votes on legislation in the House. Perhaps if the resolve of some had been stiffened at the time, and guns had been stuck to, we would not be dealing with this problem today.

As the hon. Gentleman said, there is a need for a strategy. I fear that we may already have a strategy, and if it is to be seen in the agreement in principle with Australia, our farming and crofting communities face some serious problems. I would like to see at its heart a concern for animal welfare. Others have made this point, but let me repeat it for emphasis: Australian animal welfare standards are very different from those maintained by our farmers. Australia allows growth hormones in beef production. It continues to keep its poultry in battery cages. It allows the branding of cattle and the cutting away of healthy flesh from the hindquarters of lambs.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but he makes a point about hormone-injected beef. Alongside trade deals, agreements on sanitary and phytosanitary measures are signed to protect standards. If he asks any Trade Minister or departmental official whether we will see hormone-injected beef in this country, he will get a one-word answer: “No.” It is misleading to suggest that we will see such produce in our country.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

We are talking about the difference in standards. The problem that the hon. Member has, and many of his hon. Friends face the same difficulty, is that there is a fundamental unfairness in the Government’s approach. For decades, we have told our farmers that it is in their economic interest to go for top-end production, and raise the standards of animal welfare and environmental protection. Now they risk having the rug pulled out from under their feet. That is the question to which Government Back Benchers require an answer, and against which their actions will be judged at the next election.

To come back to Australian standards, the cap that has been set in the agreement in principle on imports is so high as to be meaningless. I come back to the point that I made to the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton: when other countries go into negotiations with us they will expect the same opportunities as we have given Australia. We will hear from the Minister later, but it would appear that the Secretary of State is very keen to offer them the same opportunities. She seems to be on a mission to get more of such agreements. Her ideological commitment to free trade risks putting our farmers and farming communities at real risk.

Other Members have made the point that the TAC will need to have representation from across the whole of the United Kingdom. It is good that we have, as Fay Jones said, people with practical experience, not just the posh men in suits, but as we enter into trade agreements the experts in relation to farming, fishing and foodstuffs are to be found among the devolved Administrations around the United Kingdom, and they have to be taken along with them.

Hill farming and crofting are the economic backbone of some of our most economically fragile communities to be found anywhere in the country. The money earned stays in those communities; it goes into the shops, the agricultural merchants, the vets and the post offices. It keeps children in schools; it keeps doctors, solicitors, accountants and others in practice.

That is why these trade deals will not happen solely in an international sphere; they will have real and immediate impacts in some of the smallest and most economically fragile communities represented here today. That is what the Government have to address. Their concerns are not fanciful; they are not confection. They are real and legitimate and they must be addressed.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley 3:20 pm, 21st July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I thank my hon. Friend Neil Parish for securing this important debate. I speak as a fellow member of the EFRA Committee.

As we embark on the next stage of our role as an independent trading nation in the world, it is vital for our food, farming and agricultural sector to ensure that the Trade and Agriculture Commission has teeth, is fit for purpose and has sufficient weight in providing critique, feedback and recommendations that will enhance any future trade deals for the better. It should work to open up export opportunities for our farmers and ensure a competitive domestic farming sector that is able to provide sustainably produced, affordable food. I fear that in its current form the Commission does not have the teeth it deserves in order to ensure those objectives.

Last week I was lucky enough to visit the Great Yorkshire Show, to meet farmers and hear their views about the direction that the Government are taking. I even sat on a panel discussion kindly hosted by the Future Farmers of Yorkshire, taking part in a debate entitled, “Brand Britain on agriculture’s global stage”. What is clear, as strongly communicated to me at the show, is that there is uncertainty in the industry regarding the future of international trade. The hot topic was the recently agreed Australia trade deal, particularly the impact that could have on beef and lamb farmers, and the possibility of an undercut by Australian imports.

In my view those fears will be unfounded, based on the trade deal struck, the transition period agreed and the projected modelling. For example, Australia currently exports only 0.15% of beef to the UK. However, one message clearly communicated to me was the much greater concern related to the uncertainty for British agriculture represented by future trade deals to be negotiated, particularly with the US, Canada and South American countries such as Brazil, and to what extent the free trade deal agreed with Australia will set a precedent for those negotiations.

There are concerns about discrepancies in animal health and welfare standards, environmental protection, plant health and food standards in those countries. With a strong domestic DEFRA agenda focused on rewarding UK farmers for increased environmental protection measures, alongside the Government’s current positive drive to raise further the UK’s animal welfare standards, it is feared that, unless those discrepancies in standards with other countries with which trade deals are likely to be agreed are taken into account throughout future negotiations, UK farming and domestic market opportunities will be at a disadvantage.

It is, therefore, vital to ensure that the Trade and Agriculture Commission has the teeth and the ability to scrutinise those deals. I would like the commission to be up to that job, and have the weight to do it, so that our trade negotiators are fully informed and can make decisions accordingly. Of course, the role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission is to seek out both the impacts and the opportunities for our food and farming sector, so that we can ensure that “Brand Britain” for our agriculture sector is feasible and viable domestically, but also works and seeks out opportunities on the global market. In seeking out those global markets, we must be in selling mode, building relationships across the globe. That means ensuring that we have trade attachés and agricultural trade counsellors in vast numbers, strategically positioned across the globe in markets that we want to explore. Those must be in place now.

In summary, the Trade and Agriculture Commission has a vital role to play, but it must have teeth and it must be listened to.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 3:24 pm, 21st July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I start by thanking my friend and fellow Devon MP, my hon. Friend Neil Parish, for securing the debate. I feel somewhat outnumbered as the only member of the International Trade Committee among all the members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. It is right that we have this debate because—to start off with a point of enormous agreement—it is right that if the Government commission a report, they respond to it; and it is right that if people have given time to come up with suggestions, the Government respond. The Government need to listen carefully to the context of this debate and to the comments of previous speakers and make sure that a response is given in good time and good order before the Australia free trade agreement is produced in full detail. That is very necessary.

I have a small point of rebuttal for Geraint Davies, who said that trade deals overrode our domestic legislation. That is not the case, because our sanitary and phytosanitary standards are enshrined in domestic law, and whatever we sign does not allow those trade deals to overrule our domestic legislation. The second point I make is about the unique nature of each trade deal that we sign around the world. Just as the Japan deal is different from the Australia trade agreement that we signed, it is not likely or fair to say that the New Zealand or Canadian, or potentially Brazilian, trade deal will be exactly the same. Our negotiators stand up for our rights and interests and will be put on a footing to make sure that we secure the best possible trade deal for our country.

I join my hon. Friend Fay Jones in suggesting that if any person is suitable to be the agrifood Minister, it would be my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton. I would willingly put myself forward as his Parliamentary Private Secretary; I can see us doing a round-the-world tour to make that work. However, there is a serious point to this, because the Minister, who cannot be in the room today but is here virtually, has done a superb job in speaking to farmers in Devon—particularly to my farmers in Totnes and south Devon—about the importance of food and agriculture exports and taking on that role. It may not be my hon. Friend, but that role is being ably performed by the Minister.

Point 17 of the 22 recommendations talks about promoting agricultural exports. There seems to be a little bit of confusion, if I may put my International Trade Committee hat on, about what is already being done in British embassies around the world to promote British exports and products and to make sure that they are being promoted under the GREAT campaign. Do not get me wrong: I feel that we can go far further on this. However, we should be clear that there is already concerted continual action to make sure that that is happening.

Tariff-rate quotas are being phased out over 15 years in the proposed Australia agreement to give a sense of reassurance and comfort to the direction of travel, and there are SPS checks, but the Government also made a commitment to look at labelling. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton and the Chair of the International Trade Committee, Angus Brendan MacNeil, are already in discussions about what that labelling system should look like, and it is for this House to try to find something that reassures Members. After all, the point of this debate is about reassuring our farmers and making sure that they are protected in the years to come, just as Mr Carmichael said; his constituency and mine are very similar in economic output. We need to reassure our farmers and make sure that they look at the trade deals and see the value of the export potential that they have and which I believe is there.

I hope the Government will listen to the comments about setting up the Trade and Agriculture Commission and responding to recommendations. I hope that we will also recognise that the trade deals that we are signing provide a huge opportunity for us to make sure that fine British produce is available around the world. Future membership of organisations such as the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership will give us access to millions upon millions of people and ensure that our produce is famed and known around the world.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member)

Before I call the SNP spokesperson, I inform Members that the Labour spokesperson and the Minister will have nine minutes each.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:29 pm, 21st July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell.

I must congratulate Neil Parish on bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall, and I commend his opening speech, which was excellent—laid out with great clarity and, of course, with great knowledge, as befits his position as Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. Also made clear was his palpable exasperation with the Government’s approach to the problem. He described himself as a man of limitless patience, but that patience has run out, and we all very much hear that.

I want to mention Kerry McCarthy, with whom I have had the pleasure of serving on several Committees and who spoke—as always, with great passion and great clarity—about the need for core standards to be established, which is an important point. She referenced the “National Food Strategy”, which I hope will not join other papers that have been submitted to this Government—I assume they are in a pile somewhere, being roundly ignored.

I must commend the speech made by Dr Hudson, which was politically brave, I have to say, but welcome. He, too, made some excellent points.

Several Members referenced the Government’s failure to follow through the promises made during consideration of the Trade Bill and the Agriculture Bill. The TAC—version 1 and version 2—was promised to allay fear on the part of farmers, who could see that Brexit was about to destroy their businesses. The commission was supposed to be in place before any trade deal was signed. It was supposed to scrutinise such deals in advance. Setting it up was one of the very few concessions that the Government made during the passage of the Agriculture and Trade Bills as the clamour from farmers and others in the food and drink sectors—desperately concerned at the impact the new trade deals would have on their livelihoods—and the increasing cries from Tory Back Benchers, who were feeling the heat from their constituents, grew ever louder. It is still not there, though.

The Secretary of State for International Trade sprinted to the finish line and the Aus-UK trade deal in principle is in place. That has provided a blueprint for future agreements, but the Government seem set on a path that ignores Parliament, the devolved Administrations, and businesses and individuals from those sectors.

Let us recall the first announcement of a TAC by the Secretaries of State for International Trade and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It sounded impressive until we realised that it was only a temporary set-up and had no real power to do anything but wag its collective finger at Ministers. Indeed, as many people have pointed out, we are still waiting for a Government response to its first report—its first and only report. As I pointed out during the debates on the Trade Bill, not only was the temporary TAC not allowed any real power or influence over the outcomes of trade deals, but the insult was compounded by the installing on the commission of members such as the former lobbyist and free trade enthusiast—and perhaps even a posh man in a suit—Shanker Singham, who is on the record as arguing that we should accept chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-injected beef and genetically modified crops from the US. He recently described the TAC as a body

“whose primary focus was to study the interaction between trade and agricultural policy issues.”

So, “to study the interaction”—it is not quite the proactive and influential organisation the Government implied it would be.

Putting wolves in sheep’s clothing among a group of people genuinely committed to protecting livelihoods and standards in agriculture and in our enormously valuable food and drink sectors seems deeply cynical. The question I asked then was whether the commission was there to provide safeguards for our food standards or just to draw some sort of veil of decency over the Government’s indecent position on all this, and I am afraid we know the answer to that. There was a power struggle between the free trade hawks in the Department for International Trade and the poor wee lambs in DEFRA, and it is clear which Department won. The EFRA Secretary should be hanging his head in shame—well, someone should, as it certainly will not be the Secretary of State for International Trade, who seems remarkably proud of the part she is playing in all this.

Here we are, some months down the track and after the trade deal has been agreed in principle with Australia, and we are none the wiser as to who will make up the new statutory version of the TAC, which will supposedly have a more technical focus. Will it, too, be full of free trade hawks, who might, behind the scenes, seek to water down any recommendations that might at least maintain protections? Will the UK Board of Trade, boasting members such as Lord Hannan and former Aussie PM Tony Abbott—ferociously pro free trade, the pair of them—which just yesterday came out strongly against a proposal for a carbon border adjustment tax that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was reportedly considering, stamp all over the commission’s best efforts in its single-minded support of the freest of trade?

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

The hon. Lady is making a speech of some sort, but I am not entirely sure that the commission has been taken over by one person who has free trade ideals; it has 14 other members. This is not particularly fair. If she wants diversity on the commission, diversity should indeed be there. Does she not agree? We cannot have everyone touting the same opinion, which would be fairly pointless.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman examine the background of such people as Lord Hannan and Tony Abbott and figure out whether they are genuinely fit to be on the trade board. I do not believe they are. It is always good to be patronised by posh men in suits, Ms Bardell.

The International Trade Secretary said that the commission was there merely to advise on future strategy, which suggests, alarmingly, that the UK’s future trade policy will in fact be based purely on the judgment of Ministers, with no independent scrutiny until the deals are done and the hands shaken. So much for taking back control. In contrast, in the EU there is a rigorous process of consultation with industry, following a mandate approved by the EU27, and ratification by the EU27 and the European Parliament. Briefings are also provided for the institutions throughout negotiations. In the UK, we will have, in effect, trade policy by decree, with no proper scrutinising role for the UK Parliament. Thinking back to all the Brexiters’ vilification of faceless EU bureaucrats, I find that extraordinary.

It is clear that industry and Parliament were promised the TAC for the sake of quiet ministerial lives and to ward off what would have been, for the Brexiter parliamentarians particularly, some uncomfortable defeats. I am exasperated not with the NFUs, and certainly not with the businesses and individuals who were taken in by those Government promises, but with the many Conservative MPs who chose, outwardly at least, to trust the Government and their blandishments, despite their dismal track record. I leave aside, of course, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, others who have spoken in today’s debate and others who have spoken in the Chamber during previous debates.

The TAC was a performance designed to fool constituents into thinking that something was actually being achieved, but it was nothing more than a fig leaf to cover the exposure of a successful industry to deeply unfair international competition.

The unfortunate thing for us is that, despite the disproportionate importance to our country’s economy of agriculture, fishing and the food and drinks sector, and the likely impact on Scotland’s fragile rural and coastal economies, the devolved Administrations will get little or no say in trade deals. In fact, we have seen determined efforts by the UK Government to block any involvement of the devolved Administrations. That is in marked contrast to, say, the territories and provinces of Canada, whose deep understanding of the needs of their lands and peoples is acknowledged and respected by the federal Government and which play considerable roles in trade deal negotiations.

Another disastrous situation was brought about by the UK Government: when the devolved Administrations want to stop inferior products being shipped via England to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, thanks to the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, batted through Parliament by the Government, they will not be able to do so.

I have little time left to speak, unfortunately. I would have liked to mention in more detail the NFU Cymru rep who warned, in front of the Welsh Affairs Committee, that the Australia agreement could set the bar for future trade deals. He set out the clear differences between UK and Australian products. Questions raised by the NFU in May have not yet been answered by the Government—for instance, where is the detailed economic assessment of the cumulative impact on domestic UK agriculture of all the UK’s current and future free trade agreements? It is difficult to believe that any responsible Government would jump into such agreements without, at the very least, such measures being in place.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development Team Member)

I remind Members that, although chuntering and interrupting might be acceptable in some parts of the parliamentary establishment, under my chairship and in this Chamber they are not. If Members choose to give way, they choose to give way; if they do not, please be courteous and respect colleagues. There are members of the public watching, and we have to prove to them that we are a respectable bunch. I call Bill Esterson.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (International Trade) 3:39 pm, 21st July 2021

Very well said, Ms Bardell. I congratulate Neil Parish on an excellent opening speech. I agree with very much of what he said, as will become clear.

Standards in food and animal welfare are an important part of a functioning modern society. Standards prevent abuse and dangerous practices by businesses and individuals, and they prevent animals from being kept in such conditions and treated in such ways that, if we saw them, would make us shudder. However, the Conservatives have a problem with standards. One need only look at the proposed Australia trade deal. If the deal goes through, it will undercut our farming industry and allow the dangers of food imports produced in ways that are not tolerated here, as the hon. Gentleman put it so well. That would mean lower-quality goods for British consumers and an even more difficult trading environment for farmers, whose margins are already incredibly slim.

The Government cannot say they were not warned. As the RSPCA pointed out last month, the Australia trade deal will

“set a dangerous precedent on animal welfare” and encourage other countries with similarly poor welfare standards to demand the same favourable terms when they negotiate with us. Regardless of what Conservative Members say, that is the reality. This will be the benchmark for future deals and what others want to negotiate with us.

Despite what the Minister might claim shortly, the Australia deal involves the Government giving away quotas that allow 60 times the current level of zero-tariff beef imports straight away—not after 15 years, as Ministers like to claim. That all means that consumers could soon face supermarket shelves stocked with imported beef from cattle raised on enormous bare feedlots, or with pork from pigs that have been forced to breed in restrictive sow stalls. As the UK’s procurement standards allow low-welfare imports, those products could even find their way on to the menus of school children and hospital patients, who do not have a choice about their food.

All that means that our farmers face potential competition from high volumes of meat that has been produced more cheaply on the basis of poorer animal welfare standards. That is before a deal with Brazil—the same Brazil with which Ministers said they wanted a deal when they predicted an Amazonian Brexit boost—or with the United States. There are many areas where we would like a deal with the US, including a worker-led trade policy and putting carbon reduction at the heart of agreements, to name but two. On agriculture, however, we have serious and legitimate concerns. If the United Kingdom has a deal with Australia that allows imports of meat that has been produced to low welfare standards, the US will demand the same. As the Minister knows, the US agricultural sector has long wanted access to our market because its low-cost production would allow it to dominate at the expense of UK farmers.

The TAC was set up to head off a rebellion on the Conservative Benches over the Trade Bill and the Agriculture Bill because Conservative MPs knew—as we did, and as the terms of the deal with Australia show—that British farming was being sold down the river. In November, the Secretary of State said that the TAC would give advice to Parliament on trade and agriculture and that it so doing would allow MPs properly to scrutinise the deals the Government were negotiating. That changed significantly in June, when the Secretary of State said:

“The TAC’s role is specific and focused: it will look at the text of an FTA to see if the measures relating to trade in agricultural products have any implications for maintaining our domestic statutory protections—specifically those relating to animal and plant health, animal welfare and the environment”.

Ministers can say all they like about the TAC fulfilling the statutory remit it was given, but that is not what they said when they announced the same remit to head off a Back-Bench rebellion.

On 6 November, the Secretary of State told NFU Wales:

“We have no intention of ever striking a deal that doesn’t benefit farmers, but we have provided checks and balances in the form of the Trade and Agriculture Commission. That is an important reassurance as every deal is different.”

She did not mention assessing potential changes to statutory requirements, which she now says is the remit. The crucial check that we need on the deals proposed with Australia and New Zealand, which the Government are now pretending they never promised, is whether they would benefit British farmers.

The RSPCA, the NFU and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee all have the same concern that the TAC’s role has been watered down—a far cry from scrutiny during negotiations, or an ability to ensure that high farming standards are maintained by resisting clauses in trade agreements that undermine those standards. The TAC’s role will be limited to advising where domestic legislation has to change because, as my hon. Friend Geraint Davies correctly said, international agreements override domestic law.

The latest published remit is a clear attempt to scale back the previously briefed role of the TAC, and is a transparent attempt by the Secretary of State to avoid the embarrassment of the commission criticising what it called the “sell-out” deals that she is trying to get over the line with Australia and New Zealand, as happened last year. Why has the Secretary of State still failed to establish the TAC in permanent form? Why is she dragging her feet on appointing its chair and members? Why will she not say what support it will be provided with in undertaking its duties?

The failure to set up the TAC to do the proper job of scrutiny shows that the Government have no desire to support British farmers or farm workers, or to maintain high animal welfare standards in the UK. No wonder my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy voiced the suspicion of many that the TAC is being set up only to give the Government cover for lowering standards.

The Labour party would buy British, which means supporting British farmers and British fishers, and encouraging supermarkets to have more British produce on their shelves. Where Labour would make, buy and sell more in Britain to support our domestic industries, the Conservatives seem to want to buy more that is made—or, in this case, grown—abroad to sell in Britain, and outsourced to the highest bidder with the lowest standards. It is no good the Minister saying that because it is Australia, New Zealand or the United States, we should sign whatever we are offered. Good negotiation means trade deals that do not undercut our domestic industries, for goodness’ sake. Good negotiation means there should be give and take in trade deals, but the Conservatives have proven that they will give, give, give, with little expectation of anything in return, just for the PR of signing a flashy deal.

The story of the TAC so far is that, far from supporting our farmers, the Tories’ negotiating objective seems to be to give away the farm shop.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for International Trade 3:48 pm, 21st July 2021

I apologise for having to join you virtually, Ms Bardell. I am self-isolating, as many are. I start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship in what has been an excellent and generally well-informed debate, secured by my hon. Friend Neil Parish, who is a respected and long-standing committed advocate of British farming interests. He was likened to a Rottweiler three years before he even got to the House of Commons, which is tribute indeed.

As the Government chart a new course for the United Kingdom as an independent trading nation, we will pursue the interests of our farmers and producers with the same energy, tenacity and determination that my hon. Friend has demonstrated. The UK is already tasting great success in agrifood exports, exporting nearly £22 billion-worth of food and drink globally last year. We have a trade surplus in the sector with the United States and with Japan and Australia as well.

The important market access work that my Department is doing with our international partners is also bearing fruit, including gaining access to the United States for UK beef producers for the first time in over 20 years—a success the industry estimates could deliver £66 million-worth of sales by 2025—and securing entry to Japan, China, Taiwan and others for British beef, lamb and so on. In Japan, for example, that could be worth as much as £127 million over five years.

Our plans for accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, or CPTPP—the world’s hardest acronym to say—would give British exporters improved access to a community of 11 dynamic global markets with a combined GDP of £8.4 trillion. That would be a gamechanger for UK trade with the Asia-Pacific region.

The Government have made an iron-clad commitment to uphold the UK’s high standards for food and farming throughout our FTA negotiations. No compromise on our standards in animal welfare, food safety and the environment is enshrined in the Government’s manifesto, which the Conservative Members in this debate are all signed up to. After all, the UK’s production standards are second to none, which is why our farmers are proud to put the Union Jack quality label on their produce.

We heard from the Labour Opposition spokesman, Bill Esterson, that he wants to see more British food in our supermarkets. One hundred per cent. of beef in our major supermarkets is already UK-branded. We cannot go higher than 100%.

We very much want to see British produce here, but also able to be exported. That is why it is important that our agrifood sector can scrutinise the detail of the deals that we are negotiating. Underpinning that is the work of the original Trade and Agriculture Commission, which this Government established not under duress, but willingly, to examine our trade policy and identify new opportunities worldwide for British farmers and agricultural producers.

I am grateful to the commission’s chairman, Tim Smith, and to its members for their ambitious and comprehensive report, which puts forward innovative and far-reaching proposals to ensure that UK agriculture remains internationally competitive and that our animal welfare and environmental standards are protected.

Turning to the debate, the Chair of the EFRA Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, asked when the response will be made. It will be made as soon as it is ready. The report is immense and covers strategic policies, standards, export, promotion, staffing, marketing, environment and animal welfare. It warrants a serious and considered response. The role of the new TAC will be as debated and approved during the passage of the Trade Act 2021 and the Agriculture Act 2020.

On standards, which Kerry McCarthy also asked about, our key standards rolled over in the withdrawal agreement. Those standards that we took from the European Union rolled over in the withdrawal agreement. I think there is some confusion about market access with standards. Others have raised greater market access for Australia. That has no impact on our standards. What is allowed into this country under our standards today will remain exactly the same after the Australia free trade agreement comes into force.

The question of the agricultural council is very important. They do a great job for us and it is important to understand that it is not just the agricultural counsellors who work to promote UK food and drink and agriculture abroad. The DIT’s international commercial network is in 119 different markets around the world, with 1,500 people working on export and market access.

There was a suggestion that we are dragging our feet. I do not agree with that at all. The new Trade and Agriculture Commission will be up and running in good time to scrutinise the Australia free trade agreement as soon as the legal text is available.

Support for the new TAC was also raised by the Chair of the EFRA Committee. It will have a secretariat. It will not have the capacity for modelling, as it is not within its remit to model the economic impact of a free trade agreement. It is important that the TAC focuses on its statutory mandate as set out in the Trade Act and the Agriculture Act.

My hon. Friend Dr Hudson rightly welcomed the animal welfare chapter in the Australia trade deal. He questioned the scrutiny, but I think our system of scrutiny stands up as at least as well as in any Westminster-style democracy when it comes to trade deals. He made a point about using international aid to promote sustainable farming. The UK currently does that very professionally. I have seen it for myself in countries such as Zambia and Colombia.

Geraint Davies is wrong, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall—FTAs do not trump domestic law. There would be no need to put in amendments to domestic law reflecting a free trade agreement, if the FTA simply trumped domestic law. He is not correct on that.

On production costs, we have to look at why Australia currently sells 75% of its beef exports and 70% of its lamb exports into Asia. A large reason for that is the high costs of production, which are much higher. The cost of producing a tonne of beef, for example, in Japan is around £7,300. In Korea, it is £7,200. In the UK, it is £3,700—about half that. There is a good reason why Australia is much more willing and able to sell into those markets.

My hon. Friend Simon Jupp ably made points on the opportunities for exports. He is absolutely right. To be able to export, though, we have to abide by the rules of the international trading system. We cannot have it one way for imports and a different way for exports. The UK benefits enormously from international trading rules—we are a trading country—and we need to ensure that we abide by them. That point was made by various Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon. He asked for the Trade and Agriculture Commission to be put on a statutory footing sooner rather than later. It will be sooner; it will be up in good time to scrutinise the Australia trade deal.

Tim Farron spoke of demonstrably lower standards in Australia. I refer him to the letter sent to him by the Australian High Commission. It is not my job to defend Australian agricultural practices, but it can put up a reasonable case. It is rated five out of five by the OIE—the World Organisation for Animal Health—in terms of performance in veterinary inspections. Also, Australia bans certain practices that I know the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale welcomes that are prevalent in the EU. Sorry—I should rephrase that. I know that he welcomes being in the EU; he does not necessarily welcome the practices. For example, the production of foie gras is allowed in the EU; Australia bans it. Australia bans the castration of meat chickens and so on, so Australia can put up a halfway reasonable case that it has good standards of animal welfare.

My hon. Friend Fay Jones raises very strong points—I am delighted to address her farmers—as did my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, who made a thoughtful, well-informed and balanced speech. The role of the devolved Administrations is very important. Trade policy is reserved, but it has an impact in areas of devolved competence. My hon. Friend Robbie Moore raised the precedents of the Australia free trade agreement. He is also right that each FTA is treated individually.

I thank all Members for the debate, which has been very helpful. We look forward to making further progress on all these matters in due course.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 3:56 pm, 21st July 2021

It is a pleasure to follow the Minister. It would have been much better to have had him in the Chamber to question him further on exactly when he will respond to the Trade and Agriculture Commission. He has had five months, and I believe that his Department is more than capable of getting that out straight away to reassure the agriculture community in this country that the great standards that we maintain in food, farming, the environment and animal welfare will be maintained across Government, so that as we drive agricultural policy in DEFRA towards higher and higher standards we will at least maintain those standards when we do trade deals.

What does the Minister have to fear from the Trade and Agriculture Commission? Why will he not publish the core proposals and put the new commission in place? The Australia deal may be finalised in September, yet we do not have the new Trade and Agriculture Commission. The Minister has nothing to fear from it. The whole idea is that we can welcome the Australia deal, if it is on a level playing field, and other deals in the future. Then we can go on a great promotion of agricultural products and the Great British brand across the world. As we draw in up to 100,000 tonnes of Australian beef, let us export 100,000 tonnes of Great British beef across the world.

All that will work, but why will the Minister not publish the proposals, and put the new Trade and Agriculture Commission in place? That is all I ask him. I believe that we will then be much more on the same page, but at the moment I cannot see why he is so reticent. I fear that there is a conspiracy. I hope that that is not the case, and I look forward to being reassured. The question that he did not answer I will put to him in writing, and I hope that it will not take three months for a response.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the role of the Trade and Agriculture Commission in international trade deals.

Sitting suspended.