Tag Archives: trade

The gap between promise and proof on standards is widening in the agriculture debate

intext-wheat-blogIn the House of Commons last Wednesday, Conservative MP Simon Hoare stood up and proudly described the Woodland Trust as a group of Leninists.

While such an ascription is unlikely to become the Trust’s Twitter bio, the Grantham-based organisation might nevertheless have been pleased to see what was in fact a fond (and genuinely funny) acknowledgement of collaboration. The Woodland Trust had joined MPs, farmers and other environmental groups behind a very reasonable aim: that future trade deals should not undercut high UK standards and imperil the livelihoods of farmers.

It should not necessarily come as a surprise that different sectors and MPs from across the House are united on issues related to food and farming. Since publishing its agricultural reforms, the government has seen a strong level of support for its objective to reward farmers for providing public goods, such as cleaner water and healthier habitats. Many recognise that the approach should enable farmers to restore nature and safeguard soils while producing the food we need.

The issue is trade
Agreement on much of the Agriculture Bill, however, doesn’t mean that the debate is entirely settled. At Commons report stage, some MPs flagged continuing discussions on how to require adequate product labelling. Many expressed concerns about the future level of support for farmers, who will only be able to provide food and support the government’s environmental aims with long term substantial funding. And, in what became the biggest point of contention, MPs from across the House stood up to discuss trade.

In advance of the debate, Greener UK coalition partners had endorsed an amendment from the Conservative MP Neil Parish, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which would prevent the government from signing trade deals that would facilitate the import of lower standard products. Pushed to a vote, the amendment was defeated, but around 20 Conservatives voted with Mr Parish and against the government.

Among them was Theresa Villiers, Defra secretary as recently as February. Ms Villiers’ speech was excellent, traversing the rolling hills and ancient woodlands of England to conclude that the bill held the key to a greener future. Yet, she also warned that accepting lower quality products via trade deals would simply offshore carbon emissions and animal cruelty; the government must live up to its manifesto and provide legal commitments to high standards, she said.

Supporting the government, backbench Conservative Robbie Moore claimed that the prime minister had assured him that morning by phone that food and environmental standards would not be compromised. At the despatch box, Defra minister Victoria Prentis argued strenuously that the government remained committed to high standards (even if she could not suppress a slight smile as she read the words ‘chlorinated chicken’ from her notes). Ms Prentis repeated that it would take a vote in the House to overturn ‘existing’ regulations, shortly before departing to see the government’s significant majority do its thing.

Assurances on standards aren’t enough
It is, of course, welcome to receive verbal assurances on trade, and to hear ministers confirm their commitment to high standards. But senior figures in the government have been offering assurances on standards for a long time and, as time elapses, the gap between the promise and the proof feels ever wider.

In addition to ministers running out of legislative vehicles, the reasons for not putting such commitments into law feel increasingly inconsistent. The morning before the debate, a ‘minister’ had apparently told the BBC’s Roger Harrabin that the trade bill was a more appropriate vehicle for such legal commitments on trade and standards. This significant suggestion didn’t appear to find its way into Ms Prentis’ notes, and was given short shrift by Neil Parish, who accused the government of leading MPs “down the garden path”.

Ms Prentis instead suggested that there was now insufficient time to implement such protections before December, and that the amendments could provoke retaliations from trading partners in live trade discussions and endanger current food exports. These arguments are certainly new to me, if not Liam Fox.

There is pressure to lower tariffs on US agriculture products
Such uncertainty could perhaps be explained by continuing debates within government: the Financial Times reported on Thursday that ministers in the Department for International Trade are keen to press on with lowering tariffs for American agricultural products, but that senior ministers in Defra are vehemently opposed.

What we know for certain is that the words ‘chlorinated chicken’, and the issues encapsulated by this feathery metonym, are not going away. The trade bill resumes this week on Wednesday. We will be watching for what the government says on food and environmental standards.

While coronavirus rightly remains the immediate priority for politicians and the public, we need to make sure that a sustainable food and farming system, built from the foundation of our current high standards, is a core tenet of the society that emerges in recovery.

Alongside farmers, consumers and MPs, we environmentalists, ‘Leninists’ and all, must continue to campaign to maintain those high standards.

Clean growth should be the cornerstone of post-Brexit trade strategy

wind_smallfileThis post was first published by Business Green.

The government may be wavering about the Brexit negotiations but it has, at least, been clear about its vision for Britain’s role after Brexit. Theresa May wants “us to be a truly Global Britain, best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too.” And, under trade minister Liam Fox, the Department of International Trade sees the country’s new role as a global beacon of free trade. Read more

The three basic things you should know about trade

Dr_Liam_Fox_MP,_Shadow_Defence_Secretary_(4475796143)_Chatham HouseTo coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos, earlier this week the International Trade Secretary Liam Fox extolled the benefits of free and fair trade and set out how those principles were informing his department’s trade strategy.  In contrast to President Trump, Dr Fox looks at the world as a source of trading opportunities, not threats, and is fond of quoting the IMF forecast that 90 per cent of world growth over the next ten to 15 years will come from outside continental Europe. Read more

Will we get a Trade Bill fit for the environment?

containers Michael Gaida CCThis post is by Matthew Stanton (@MStantonUK), lawyer at WWF-UK, and Ali Plummer, senior policy officer on Brexit at RSPB. They are both representatives of the Greener UK coalition.

The government’s recently released 25 year environment plan says it is a “comprehensive and long term approach to protecting and enhancing our natural habitats and landscapes in England for the next generation”. But, to be truly comprehensive, the plan must, of course, go beyond Defra and be owned across government departments and bodies, with all taking a responsibility for its delivery and achievements. For instance, the UK’s new external trade policy presents a tremendous opportunity for the UK to lead the way in promoting sustainable trade. Read more

Big New Year questions on the environment and politics

Sunrise through a foggy start of the day over the river TrentNew Year articles and blogs often predict what is going to happen in the year ahead. But after the political upsets of the past couple years, it seems more appropriate to pose questions than predict outcomes. So here are some of the important questions that need addressing this year, starting, inevitably, with Brexit.

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