Farmers and food campaigners were defeated on Monday night in their attempts to enshrine high food safety and animal welfare practices in British law.
Several prominent backbench Tory MPs rebelled against the government to vote for amendments to the agriculture bill that would have given legal status to the standards, but the rebels were too few to overcome the government’s 80-seat majority and the key amendment fell by 332 votes to 279 after an often impassioned debate.
The government argued that giving current standards legal status was unnecessary as ministers had already committed to ensuring that UK food standards would be kept in any post-Brexit trade agreements. However, critics fear that the lack of a legally binding commitment in the agriculture bill will allow future imports of sub-standard food that will undercut British produce and expose consumers to risk.
Kath Dalmeny, chair of the Future British Standards Coalition, said: “It’s dismaying that the government has opposed attempts to put into law its own commitment to maintain British food standards. It is perfectly possible to have high standards at home and sign trade deals with new trading partners who meet them. It’s what consumers have repeatedly said they want.”
The bill, with its defeated amendments, will now return to the House of Lords and there will be further chances this week for debate. But the government’s majority gives proponents of a tougher bill a hill to climb, despite a recent YouGov poll that showed nine out of 10 people want to protect British standards on food and animal welfare in trade deals.
Katie White, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF, said: “We hope the Lords take this public mandate to deliver the Conservative manifesto commitment to maintain standards, especially after it was significantly backed by Conservative MPs. We call on peers to secure guarantees that the public and MPs are told upfront about any changes to standards that might happen as a result of trade deals, and that the final say on any changes will be a decision for our elected representatives.”
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The votes came as a Dispatches documentary on Channel 4 revealed the poor hygiene and welfare among livestock on intensive farms in the US. Although the government has given repeated assurances that chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef would not be imported to the UK under any trade deals, campaigners point out that banning these two products would still allow the import of many types of other food produced under conditions and with drugs, including antibiotics, that would be illegal in the UK.
Luke Pollard, the shadow environment, food and rural affairs secretary, said: “The Conservatives have again broken their promise to British farmers and the public. No one wants lower quality food on our plates, but there is an increasing risk that this could happen because the prime minister is refusing to show leadership. Labour will always back British farmers and it is a disgrace that the Tories won’t do the same.”
Neil Parish, the Conservative MP and chair of the select committee on the environment, food and rural affairs, gave an impassioned speech. “Why are we not a great beacon of animal welfare and the environment as we negotiate these trade deals?” he asked, calling for the government to have the “armour” of legal status for the standards. “We the British believe in agriculture, we believe in farming.”
Sir Roger Gale, the leader of Scotland’s Tories, Douglas Ross, George Freeman and several others joined Parish.
On Tuesday, the fisheries bill also will come back to MPs. Marine campaigners want stronger commitments from the government that future fishing quotas will be set in line with scientific advice.
Ministers insist that they will ensure future fishing limits are within the “maximum sustainable yield”, but that setting such a commitment in law would tie the hands of negotiators in the expected annual talks with the EU and other countries over shared fishing grounds.
The government is also resisting calls to require fishing vessels to carry monitoring equipment, in order to ensure they are landing their catch in line with the rules, and to end destructive fishing practices such as “bottom trawling” in marine protected areas.