The industry has welcomed the government decision to establish a Trade and Agriculture Commission to safeguard the UK’s high food and farming standards outside the EU. But the body is advisory and time limited – assurances are being sought as to how it will operate.
The NFU has long called for such a body, which Michael Gove had agreed to while Defra secretary of state. But his successors have proved reluctant to legislate for a Commission, as Brexiter trade ministers feared having their trade deal options limited. This standoff came to a head with the government’s rejection of an amendment to the Agriculture Bill to safeguard UK standards that was even supported by former Defra minister Theresa Villers.
A subsequent public petition on the issue organised by the NFU attracted over a million signatures in support, which has clearly changed the government’s mind. “I am very pleased that the government is taking concrete action to address the challenges of safeguarding our high food and farming standards by agreeing to set up a Trade and Agriculture Commission, something we first called for over 18 months ago,” says NFU president Minette Batters. “This is a hugely important development.
“It will be crucial in assisting government to meet both its ambition for a n independent trade policy and respecting its manifesto commitment not to allow the policy to compromise our high food and farming standards.”
Ms Batters has subsequently written to Department of International Trade (DIT) secretary Liz Truss seeking further details of the Commission’s terms of reference. She is adamant that it must be fully accountable, with clear and formal links to Parliament, and that its advice and recommendations are openly debated with government required to respond in an open and transparent manner.
It must be independent – while working under the DIT, it must have an independent chair with trade and industry expertise. The membership must represent farm to fork agrifood interests alongside environmental and animal welfare bodies, while the Commission must have a comprehensive remit – producing a roadmap to show how the manifesto commitments can be met, and an ongoing input into the developing trade negotiations.
Ms Truss has been reported to advocate reduced tariffs on US food imports in order to reach a trade deal with that country. But in announcing the new Commission, she has conceded that the body should consider policies to influence free trade agreements “to ensure UK farmers do not face unfair competition and that their high animal welfare and production standards are not undermined”.
Ms Batters concludes: “It will be vital that Parliament is able to properly consider the Commission’s recommendations and can ensure government implements them effectively. The NFU will continue to scrutinise the progress of trade negotiations with the US and other countries over the coming months outside of the work of the Commission so that our future trade deals work for British farmers and consumers. It is vital that Parliament is provided with a strengthened role in this regard as well.”