The Agriculture Act must be amended to make illegal the importation of substandard food imports

by Glyn Roberts, FUW President

“Trust in the UK’s honour and honesty has been diminished around the world, much to the embarrassment of MPs from across the political spectrum, including those who support the Government.”

The need to prevent the importation of food produced to animal health and welfare, environmental and social standards which fall short of those required of Welsh and UK producers is one which has united farmers, environmentalists, animal rights campaigners and others in recent months.

After all, not only do we want to maintain standards which protect our animals, plants, environment and people, but also why should we as farmers be expected to bear the costs of workers rights, strict environmental restrictions and endless regulations while competing against those who treat their workers, animals and environment with disdain and save massive amounts of costs in the process.

It is often argued that even if we do allow such products into the UK, consumers will solve the problem by seeking out our higher quality products, but this is either a naive view held by the types of politician and civil servant who shop in Waitrose or a disingenuous argument put forward by those who in reality wish to see trade liberalisation whatever the costs.

The truth is that while there are those consumers who will seek out better quality Welsh and UK products produced to higher standards, and supermarkets that will at times be very supportive, the amount of such support depends upon exchange rates and the economy, while a great deal of the products found in the service sector (pub grub etc.) and processed food contain ingredients that no one really knows or cares anything about and could come from anywhere – as highlighted during the horsemeat scandal.

Of course, if you ask people on the way into a
supermarket about support for standards and UK products, large numbers will tell you that they always buy free range, British, Farm Assured etc. etc. – but when you examine their shopping trolleys on the way out you get a different story, especially when there is a two-for- the-price-of-one offer on pizzas containing products from ‘more than one country of origin’.

At the moment, that ‘country of origin’ is likely to be an eU country with baseline standards which have to be the same as ours, or possibly a non-eU country that has had to follow strict rules equivalent to our own to get a trade deal with the eU.

But if a liberal trade deal without such strict standards of equivalence is reached with the likes of the USA or Australia, this will merely increase unfair competition and lower standards, while also threatening a trade deal with the eU or increasing costly checks at the eU border, since the eU’s priority is to protect its consumers, producers and borders by making sure nothing that has entered the UK that does not meet its standards makes it onto the eU market.

This is why the FUW supported Neil Parish and the environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s ‘New Clause 2’ amendment to the Agriculture Bill, as it would have prevented substandard food products being included in any trade agreement – and we have also been proactive in supporting the introduction of similar protections into the Bill by the house of Lords.

In his National Food Strategy report, published in July, Defra Board Member henry Dimbleby argues for an alternative to a blanket ban on imports which do not meet our standards, saying that we should instead keep food import tariffs high for all countries with which we do not have a trade deal, and only sign deals and reduce tariffs for food which does meet our standards.

If, for whatever reason (most likely a UK Government block) we cannot get a blanket ban on substandard imports into the Agriculture Bill, this is a sensible fallback position which the FUW supports. however, it relies on us having high tariffs that make importing food into the UK outside a trade deal uneconomical.

The UK Government announcement in May of high post eU withdrawal tariffs effectively matching those of the eU was therefore welcomed by the FUW. however, there are now concerning rumours that some Government advisors or ministers are arguing for these to be slashed to allow cheap food in from anywhere after December – a move that would not only be damaging to farmers and food security, but would also throw away negotiating capital in the current trade negotiations.

Conservative MPs who opposed Neil Parish’s amendment to the Agriculture Bill have come under huge pressure from FUW members and others to reconsider their positions, and their response has been to assure constituents that the Government will stand by last year’s Conservative manifesto commitment to maintaining standards.

Unfortunately, the track record of politicians from all parties is not great when it comes to sticking to pledges and manifesto commitments, and we have in recent weeks seen a broken promise on a monumental scale: In the run up to the November 2019 general election, Boris Johnson was heralding the ‘oven-ready’ eU withdrawal deal his Government negotiated with the eU in October 2019 and was published that same month.

By December, the deal had become the subject of a Government Bill which was ultimately voted for in January by an overwhelming majority of MPs who had had months to read and understand its terms

and implications – it was, after all, being discussed endlessly at the time, especially in the context of the Good Friday Agreement which was the focus of the changes made to what is otherwise just a revamped version of Theresa May’s original eU withdrawal deal.

Yet despite this, the promise (made in full knowledge of the facts – unless any MPs wish to come clean and admit they didn’t read or understand what they were voting for) has now effectively been broken through the bringing forward of the Internal Market Bill, which goes back on the agreement voted for just eight months ago – with the UK Government and its advisors claim they have only just noticed a fatal flaw in the smallprint that everyone else who had read the document regarded as being written on the front in thick felt pen.

The truth is that the section of the withdrawal agreement the Government is now trying to backtrack on was being discussed by the FUW as a likely outcome even before the referendum took place, and always seemed a likely outcome in harder Brexit scenarios if the peace secured by the Good Friday Agreement was to be maintained.

But whether or not you believe the official version – which boils down to the Government either not read their papers properly at the time or conspiring to mislead MPs into voting for something they knew they didn’t agree and would oppose in future – the result is that trust in the UK’s honour and honesty has been diminished around the world, much to the embarrassment of MPs from across the political spectrum, including those who support the Government.

Such a blatant demonstration – on the international stage no less – of the Government’s willingness to go back on its word highlights why we cannot just rely on the assurances given in the Conservative Manifesto and need MPs to ensure that the Agriculture Act is amended to make illegal the importation of substandard food imports which undermine our family farms.

Mae’r erthygl yma yn Gymraeg ar wefan yr FUW – Newyddion – Newyddion Y Tir: “Rhaid diwygio’r Ddeddf Amaethyddiaeth i wneud mewnforio mewnforion bwyd is-safonol yn anghyfreithlon.”

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