Conservative rebels have failed in their bid to guarantee post-Brexit food imports will match the UK’s high food and environmental standards.
Senior Conservatives Simon Hoare and Neil Parish led the push for the Agriculture Bill, which sets out new policy as the UK quits the EU-wide Common Agricultural Policy, to require a level playing field between British farmers and those overseas in future trade agreements.
The amendment was defeated by 277 votes to 328, majority 51, although Deputy Speaker Dame Eleanor Laing said some MPs had mistakenly voted the wrong way via the new electronic system – but she added this would not have affected the result.
The division list showed 22 Conservative MPs supported the amendment, and in theory rebelling, although they included Chancellor Rishi Sunak – who made a mistake in the voting process rather than staging a shock bid to depart the Government.
Mr Sunak voted correctly with his Conservative colleagues on the next division to defeat a Labour bid for the Government to publish a coronavirus emergency food plan.
A source close to Mr Sunak blamed “online teething problems with the system”, adding: “The Chancellor did not intentionally vote against the Government. He called the chief whip straight away to explain.”
Mr Hoare, speaking during the Bill’s report stage, warned a change was required otherwise food imports to the UK would be cheap for no other reason bar the fact that they were raised to lower standards”.
Mr Parish, chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, told MPs it was “time for us to stand and be counted” and support such measures.
He said: “I would say quite clearly to the Secretary of State for Trade (Liz Truss) she should actually spend her time going out and dealing with a trade deal that has equivalence and makes sure we actually export our very important animal and environmental welfare.
“And I’d say to the Americans, why don’t you upgrade your production? Why don’t you reduce the density of population of your chicken? Why don’t you reduce the amount of antibiotics you’re using and then you can actually produce better chicken not only for America, it can also come into this country.
“Let’s not be frightened of putting clauses into this Bill that protect us to have the great environment and welfare that the whole Bill wants to have and farmers want to have.”
But environment minister Victoria Prentis warned of “unintended consequences” of amending the Bill and insisted all EU import standards will be converted into domestic law by the end of the December 2020 transition period.
She told the Commons: “I’d like to reassure colleagues that all food coming into this country will be required to meet existing import requirements.
“At the end of the transition period, the Withdrawal Act will convert all EU standards into domestic law.
“This will include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in beef. Nothing apart from potable water may be used to clean chicken carcasses and any changes to these standards would have to come before this Parliament.
“We will be doing our own inspections to ensure that these import conditions are met.”
Ms Prentis said the Government would consider calls for labels to be used to differentiate products that meet domestic production standards from those that do not.
Race to the bottom
For Labour, shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard said not including food standards in the Bill could lead to a “race to the bottom”.
Conservative former trade secretary Liam Fox warned the US “would walk” in free trade talks if an amendment calling for food imports to match the UK’s “high standards” were to become law in the UK.
He said: “There is nothing that this Government will do to undermine food safety standards in this country, to suggest otherwise is a complete red herring in this whole debate.
“But it would be a fine start to Britain’s independent trade policy outside the EU, if we were to begin by finding ourselves in conflict with the very rules based trading system that we believe to be necessary.”
The Bill later cleared the Commons after receiving a third reading by 360 votes to 211, majority 149.
It will undergo further scrutiny in the House of Lords at a later date.