12 October 2020
George Freeman urges the Government to enshrine its commitment to high food and animal welfare standards in law

George Freeman urges the Government to enshrine its commitment to high food and animal welfare standards in law and use trade leverage and variable tariffs to incentivise high standards across the world.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con)

I rise as a Member of Parliament for a very agricultural constituency, and as the product of a farming family—in fact, I think I still have a place on offer at Harper Adams if this career does not work out—as well as a former Minister for agritech, former trade envoy, and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on science and technology in agriculture.

This is a major moment, when we take back control of our farming policy from the EU after 40 years, and of our trading destiny and sovereignty. It is on a par with 1947—the last great reset of agricultural policy—or, indeed, the corn laws. I welcome the Agriculture Bill, and the work of DEFRA Ministers and officials in setting out a framework that supports commercial British farming—a great British industry that is leading in the world—and recognises that its important environmental work, which involves managing 70% of our land area, requires additional support. In broad terms, I strongly welcome the Bill.

I welcome even more strongly the Conservative party’s commitments, both in our manifesto and over the last 18 months from the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who was the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at the time of the general election. I also welcome everyone who asked about our commitment to ensuring that we do not in any way undermine those standards. The Prime Minister put it beautifully when he said,

“we will not accept any diminution in food hygiene or animal welfare standards… We will not engage in some cut-throat race to the bottom…We are not leaving the EU to undermine European standards”.

He could not have been any clearer.

For that reason, I welcome the comments of my friend and neighbour, the Secretary of State for International Trade, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), her agreement to the Trade and Agriculture Commission and her personal commitment to ensuring that we do not negotiate away any standards. This really matters: to the great industry of British farming and agriculture; to consumers watching today, who want to know that we are looking after their interests; to voters, to whom the Conservative party gave those solemn commitments last year; and, dare I say it, to this party, which I have always seen as a party of the countryside, of stewardship, of rural community, and of high standards in animal welfare and environmental farming. That is what is on the table when we vote tonight. Either we are that as a party, or, in the countryside, we are very little.

This should be a hugely exciting opportunity for us to set out an ambition and lead globally, to use our trade leverage to promote fair trade around the world, to give our farmers a level playing field, to embrace variable tariffs, and to ensure that we support growers around the world to follow the standards that we need them to embrace. We have to double world food production on the same land area with half as much water within 20 years. That is a massive opportunity for our agritech industry. Imagine if we used our tariffs variably to say, “We won’t accept food that breaches our minimum standards. We will lower tariffs on decent food, but we’ll zero tariff food produced in ways we know we need as a global community.”

But there is a major problem: the Government, despite endorsing all of that vision, are today stripping out the proper establishment of the commission that the Secretary of State for International Trade herself agreed to, carefully negotiated in the House of Lords. They are asking us to rely on CRaG—a process agreed decades ago that was not designed for this purpose, and which will mean that this House will not have a say on trade deals—and asking us to rely on the WTO, which specifically prohibits animal welfare and food production standards as a legal basis for any trade restrictions. We are saying that we defend farming and the standards that we support, but denying this House the means to guarantee them.

Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con)

What else has my right hon. Friend done about how he feels about this matter? Has he written to anyone about it?

George Freeman

I am grateful to my distinguished hon. Friend. The truth is that we can talk about standards, but if we expose UK farmers and growers to imports coming in at a lower price because they are not fulfilling those standards, they will not be able to compete and we will be throwing away the opportunity of having a great industry that leads the world. Lord Curry, who tabled the amendment in the other place, said:

“Under the current terms, the commission will set up for six months and will submit an advisory report to the Secretary of State, which will be presented to Parliament. It will then be disbanded and disappear into the mist. There is no obligation on the Secretary of State to take its recommendations seriously”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 July 2020; Vol. 805, c. 145.]

If we, as a Government and as a party, are seriously committed to honouring our commitments, I would like us to go further. Why do we not commit to enshrining our standards properly in some form of schedule—the standards that we will not undermine or allow any Minister of any Government to negotiate away? Why do we not give this House the power to ensure that it can scrutinise properly? Why do we not embrace a trade policy that is fit for this 50-year opportunity, which puts the British flag at the top of the mast for standards, and go out into the world and say, “We’ll use our trade leverage and variable tariffs to support the good, benign practices that the world urgently needs”?