3rd Nov


TFA Blog #20 – Protecting the Things We Care about at Home and Abroad

This blog is the full (unedited) piece, written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The Cumberland News and Westmorland Gazette, published on 23 October 2020.

As a society, we generally protect the things we value most.  Beautiful landscapes are designated, areas of high scientific interest are safeguarded, buildings are listed, and our ground and surface waters are shielded against pollution.  We have rules around animal welfare, the use of agrochemicals, public access and the protection of flora and fauna.  If all these issues are important to us, and of course they are, then our concern for them should not stop at our international borders.  These concerns must translate into the way in which we conduct our international affairs and, most importantly, how we trade with other countries.

What is the point of protecting our own watercourses from slurry pollution if we import dairy products from countries that have inadequate controls in place?  How is it right that we seek to protect wildlife by adding increasing numbers of pesticides to proscribed lists when we persist in bringing in product from abroad which continues to use what we have banned at home?  Not only would such double standards represent crass hypocrisy, they would threaten to undermine the sustainability of domestic producers who are following the higher cost requirements at home and having to compete against raw and processed food products produced more cheaply to lower standards.

Worse still would be a situation where our Government claims to be doing all it can to protect our high standards at home within our international trading relationships, but taking no practical measures to ensure that its rhetoric translates into practical and effective action.  Sadly, this sort of “emperor’s new clothes” situation is exactly where we are today.

In its consideration of the Agriculture Bill, the House of Lords approved two important amendments to fill the vacuum within the Bill on protecting high standards in trade.  The first, from Crossbench Peer Lord Curry of Kirkharle sought to improve the role and remit of the newly appointed Trade and Agriculture Commission to provide a more effective body to scrutinise agreements on trade and to advise Government on measures to protect our high domestic standards.  The second from Lord Grantchester from the Labour frontbench was a simpler, blunter instrument that would have required the Government to ban imports that did not meet domestic standards.

The Curry amendment recognised the complexity of the issues involved and provided a practical mechanism to look at how differing international priorities could be accommodated within a sustainable international trade policy applying the principles of protection and high standards within all trading arrangements.  Sad then that political chicanery denied Members of Parliament the chance of even debating this reasonable and well thought out amendment when the House of Commons was asked to consider the amendments that the House of Lords had made.  Instead, MPs were only given the opportunity to debate the Grantchester amendment with the Government being able to deride it on the basis that it was unworkable in its blunt application and would tie the hands of present and future Governments too tightly.  By way of protest, 14 brave Conservative MPs ignored the Government’s instructions to vote against the amendment and sided with the Opposition parties to try and keep the Grantchester amendment alive.  Sadly, the Government’s majority held sway on the day and the Bill returns to the House of Lords for it to consider its options.

Those opposed to further measures in this area argue that they are borne out of a protectionist mindset within the farming community and a hankering back to the “bad old days” of the Common Agricultural Policy.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The importance of this issue brought together the biggest coalition of farming, environmental, animal welfare and public health bodies when over 60 of them wrote to the Prime Minister in January this year calling for vital measures to protect food standards in trade.  Later in the year over one million people signed a petition calling for action from the Government.  These are issues we all care about and the Government must not use its Commons majority to avoid doing the right thing.

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