Wilf Stevenson on a broken promise that shows how desperate the government is to secure a trade deal with Trump
It took merely a week after winning last December’s general election for the Conservative Party to start breaking manifesto commitments on trade negotiations. Having promised to “not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”, the Queen’s Speech that followed stated that it would instead “promote animal welfare standards at every opportunity in trade negotiations”. A compromise on no compromise, as it were – and nothing to add on what happens if those opportunities do not arise.
Although the issue may seem marginal to a casual observer, the subtle change in language has big implications. Lowering standards will allow for lower quality products to enter the UK market at cheaper prices, creating health concerns for consumers and competition problems for farmers.
Chlorinated chicken has become the main symbol of this but hormone beef has also been described as an “unnecessary and unacceptable risk”. But beyond the scary sounding names, what does this actually mean? With chickens for example, they can be kept in small and dirty conditions where illness spreads and survival can be a struggle. To combat this, they are pumped full of antibiotics and steroids until they are slaughtered. Chlorine is then used to kill bacteria at the end of the production process to allow producers to whitewash poor hygiene along the whole of the supply chain.
Such practices are common in other countries such as the United States, where loosening agricultural import standards to let farmers sell more goods to the UK is an aim of Donald Trump’s administration. With an election looming later this year, the President will be keen to demonstrate a self-proclaimed mastery at making deals. Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile, will be looking towards completing the Brexit transition period with a new trans-Atlantic agreement.
While our farming industry, environment groups and public health bodies remain opposed to any slippage in standards, the government are unwilling to listen. Last month, more than 60 groups wrote to Mr Johnson asking for assurances that new agreements would not undermine standards, and for the establishment of a commission to “bring together a wide variety of stakeholders to engage on the UK’s trade policy”. This idea will be debated in the House of Lords later today, and we will remind ministers that this was promised by the previous Environment Secretary, Michael Gove.
So, if the government truly wants to maintain current protections, its Agriculture Bill provides an immediate opportunity to lock down that commitment. A simple amendment to uphold animal welfare and environmental standards would give guarantees in law to UK farmers that they will not be undercut by new imports. Should ministers fail to provide that certainty, we will be ready to amend the Trade Bill on its reintroduction to Parliament.
It remains to be seen how many promises Boris Johnson and his Government will break during their attempts to secure post Brexit trade deals. Labour however, will not stand for reduced protections and standards.
Lord Wilf Stevenson is a member of the Labour frontbench team in the House of Lords. He tweets @WilfStevenson
Published 25th February 2020