14th Sep


TFA Blog #18 – Shaky Start for New Trade and Agriculture Commission

This blog is the full (unedited) piece, written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The Cumberland News and Westmorland Gazette, published on 28 August 2020.

It is good that the Government has at last accepted the need to address how it will protect our high environmental, animal welfare and food safety standards in our future trading relationships beyond our historical links with the European Union.  The announcement of the Trade and Agriculture Commission was made by the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, earlier in July.  It has only taken four years of robust lobbying and debate, the biggest coalition of farming, environmental, animal welfare and consumer interest groups on a single issue, many questions and debates held within Parliament and most recently over one million signatures on a petition calling for the Government to take action to protect our standards in trade.

However, before we put out the bunting to enjoy the moment, serious questions have got to be asked about the extent to which the Commission will deliver what is needed.  Whilst no one is interested in establishing yet another quango, it is of concern that the Commission has only been given six months to complete its task.  The trade deals which we are just now beginning to negotiate will take years to conclude.  How we hold the decisions made in those deals to account against any recommendations from the Commission is far from clear.  Who will be the advocate of the Commission’s recommendations in the absence of there being a Commission?

Another worrying aspect is the extent to which the Government has been keen to stress, over and over again, that any recommendations from the Commission will be advisory only.  Of course there is no sense in pushing for a nonelected body to be able to enforce its recommendations on Government or Parliament, but there needs to be a properly constituted framework for how the recommendations of this Commission will be considered by Parliament and responded to by Government.  Rather than repeating the “advisory only” mantra, it would have been good to hear Government Ministers say how incredibly seriously they will take the recommendations of the Commission.

Then there were the ill-judged comments of the appointed Chairman to the Commission, Tim Smith, ex of Tesco and the Food Standards Agency.  He was reported in the national press in the weekend following the launch of the Commission, suggesting some of the concerns about standards and trade were “alarmist”.  Not good for a Chair to show partiality on what has been a very sensitive and important issue.  Also, Commission member Shanker Singham pronounced shortly after his appointment that the UK should not be asking for tariff discrimination in its trade negotiations with the US on the basis of process or production method – is that an attempt to rule out a viable option even before it is discussed by the Commission?.

In what can only be an attempt to control the ongoing narrative, the Department for International Trade has denied the Commission the opportunity to have control of its own media and instead is insisting that the communications for the Commission will be handled only by the sponsoring Department.  This doesn’t provide much comfort that the Commission will be allowed to carry on its work in an independent way.  Indeed, there are rumours abounding that the articles in the National Press quoting the Chair and referred to above were seeded by staff from the Department of Trade press team.

All of that said, there are some tremendously good farming representatives who have been appointed to the Commission.  They will need to work hard to ensure that their voice is heard to deliver something more than a box ticking exercise.  So despite its rather fault laden launch, the Commission must be given all of the support it needs to carry on its work in the hope that we have a robust report with strong recommendations which the Government will indeed take seriously as it plans our future trading relationships with the rest of the world.

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