Brexit: MPs defeat Lords amendment aimed at protecting UK food standards

13 October 2020, 00:43

A tractor demonstration took place in London ahead of the debate in Westminster
A tractor demonstration took place in London ahead of the debate in Westminster. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

MPs have overturned a Lords amendment that would have protected UK food standards in future post-Brexit trade deals.

Despite facing a Conservative backlash, the government won a vote on an amendment to the Agriculture Bill by 332 votes to 279 - a majority of 53.

The House of Lords alteration would have obliged agricultural and food imports from overseas to meet domestic UK standards.

Peers tried making the change in an attempt to block foodstuffs entering Britain from countries with lower animal welfare standards amid concerns that chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef would be imported from the US.

Several Tory MPs gave their backing to the amendment, with the division list revealing 14 rebels - including former environment secretary Theresa Villiers and Scottish Conservative Party leader Douglas Ross.

However, following a vote in the Commons on Monday, the proposal was stripped from the legislation.

Watch: Keir Starmer says Brexit deal 'can be done' as UK nears deadline

Read more: Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel hold last-minute Brexit talks

The government argued that protections are already in place and that it has no intention of softening them.

Senior Tory MP Neil Parish said the Bill was heading in the right direction but the UK should be a "great beacon" on animal welfare and the environment when negotiating future trade deals.

The chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee said: "We have in our manifesto the commitment to both animal welfare and the environment.

"Would it not be right for the Secretary of State for International Trade to have the armour of having the backing of Parliament to say 'I can't negotiate away that particular part of the deal with you because it is written down in law'?"

Watch: Jamie Oliver tells James O'Brien his fears for food standards post-Brexit

Read more: Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron hold last-minute Brexit talks

Tory MP Richard Fuller, for North East Bedfordshire, intervened while Mr Parish was speaking, expressing "frustration" over ministers suggesting the food standards protections need to be put in other legislation.

Mr Parish added: "We, the British, believe in animal welfare, we believe in the environment... so does this Government, but for goodness sake getting the backing of Parliament."

For the government, environment minister Victoria Prentis said ministers will not change English law on import standards "under any circumstances".

She told the Commons: "The fearmongering must stop tonight. We are not going to be importing chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-treated beef. That is the law of this land.

"This government is not going to change it under any circumstances and we have said very clearly that in all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise our high environmental protection, animal welfare or food standards.

"We have a range of tools to protect us, we have the existing regulation, we have parliamentary scrutiny which I detailed earlier, including the select committee which I for one think is significant."

Ahead of Monday's debate, a tractor demonstration took place in central London as farmers demanded the upholding of food standards in post-Brexit trade deals.

RSPCA chief executive Chris Sherwood, reacting to the vote on food standards, said: "Tonight, the Government once again failed to make good their manifesto promise that they will not sell out the UK's animal welfare for a quick trade deal."

SNP environment spokeswoman Deidre Brock added in a statement: "By refusing to enshrine into legislation the high standards that currently protect us, Boris Johnson's Government has fired the starting gun for a post-Brexit race to the bottom, which threatens our superb food and agriculture sectors and risks flooding our stores with low-quality produce."

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, also said: "The Conservatives have continually promised to back British farmers throughout the Brexit process, but their failure tonight to uphold our high food standards reveals just how hollow those promises were."