What possessed the Tories to defy the will of the people on food and farming standards?

Memes by the author

We – 95 per cent of us – want to keep our high food standards. Likewise, 92 per cent of us want both food and animal welfare standards maintained in future trade agreements. And 86 per cent of us fear food produced to low standards and banned here would find its way into institutional food (schools, hospitals, care homes, etc) if we were to conclude a trade deal with the United States. Some 74 per cent of us oppose the import of food with lower welfare standards, and 68 per cent of us want further legal requirements to ensure animal welfare is protected.

It is cut and dried. There is perfect alignment between the will of the people and the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge to maintain and even enhance our food, animal welfare and environmental standards, undiluted by trade negotiations. Against this backdrop, voting for the Lords’ amendments was the obvious thing to do, right? They required, amongst other things, enshrining our standards on food safety and animal welfare in law (amendment 16 to the agriculture bill) and making the trade and agriculture commission a permanent body with greater powers (amendment 18).

Wrong – at least for this contrary government, which is only interested in the will of the people when it coincides with the personal wishes of the four-man cabal inside Number 10 Downing Street: Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab. What on earth possessed the Tories to burn through yet more political capital and defy the people like this?

There are some obvious macro reasons. A thumping majority in parliament is hardly an aphrodisiac for democracy. On the contrary, it renders parliamentary democracy impotent, as ambitious, venal MPs submit to the whip rather than to their constituents’ interests, their blinkered eyes trained on their future career within the party. It is what Lord Hailsham termed “elective dictatorship”, with the party in power having free reign until the next general election. Dominic Cummings clearly underestimates the strength of the burgeoning grievance, with the reality of Brexit being light years away from what was promised and the government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic having exacted so high a price from us ordinary folk. He may have miscalculated that we will have forgotten all about this by the next time an election rolls around. Or perhaps he is confident that his ‘big data’ project, consolidating information on every one of us from all government databases, including the NHS, all but guarantees the Tories victory in the next election. Constituency boundary changes will make it even harder for Labour to gain a majority, which may also contribute to his apparent belief that the government’s grip on power is unassailable.

In addition to these macro reasons, there are a number of micro reasons which can be gleaned by reading the articles written by Tory MPs, peers and pundits in the run up to the votes on the Lords’ amendments, as well as what was said in the House of Commons during the three-hour debate. The hubristic article by Lord-in-waiting Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph, the well-intentioned but misleading article by newbie MP Anthony Browne for ConHome and the libertarian diatribe by trade and agriculture commission member Shanker Singham for CapX appear to have been the most influential, judging by the number of sentences regurgitated from them by Tory MPs voting against the amendments.

It is important to state at the outset that there is almost universal respect amongst MPs for Britain’s food and farming standards – at least, those who spoke on the day appeared to be sincere in their aim to uphold them. Where they differ is in how best to deliver that – and in having the courage to be their own person and defy the whip. The reasons Tory MPs claim for opposing enshrining our standards in law include:

Claim 1. A dogmatic belief that it violates a fundamental World Trade Organisation (WTO) rule that domestic standards not be used as barriers to trade.

It is true that one of the prime objectives of the WTO is to minimise protectionism so as to ensure that developing countries can compete on a more level playing field. Countries are also not allowed to ban the import of goods outright. Here’s the thing: there are exemptions to these rules. Standards set by global organisations are an example. These might include the Conference of Parties (COP) – which we are hosting in Glasgow next year – for climate change rules; the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) for food standards; and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) for rules on animal welfare.

Further exemptions are set out in article 20 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). They include: measures necessary to protect public morals, “exhaustible natural resources”, and human, animal or plant life or health. In other words, the WTO rule is not absolute; there are derogations we could take advantage of, as other countries do.

Now, the Tories would argue that those exemptions do not apply to the process by which an animal is reared, so we cannot ban chlorinated chicken, or growth-hormone-laden beef, or ractopamine-packed pork unless we can demonstrate it is unfit for human consumption. This we cannot do. The food is unhealthy, not unfit –

Americans eat it. Sure, their rate of foodborne disease is ten times higher than ours and they have far more resulting deaths, but that’s not enough evidence, from a WTO perspective, to ban it.

Technically, then, the Tories are right. In practice, however, the opposite is true. Those foodstuffs were previously banned here in the UK  because the EU bans them. China and Russia have joined the EU’s ban on pork where ractopamine has been used in the rearing process. The only question is: does the UK have enough clout to impose such a ban?

Claim 2. Government saying it is absolutely clear it is committed to high standards is enough to prevent those standards being undermined by trade deals (magical thinking).

The Tory government has been absolutely clear that it is committed to ‘votes for life’ for British citizens, no matter where in the world we live, since at least 2010 – so ‘clear’, in fact, that it has been a manifesto pledge in the last FOUR general elections. Do we have votes for life? No.

This government has been absolutely clear that it is committed to the right of reunion of unaccompanied child refugees with family members already settled here – so ‘clear’, in fact, that it has twice voted against it in the past 12 months.

I could go on, but you get my drift. It was never more important to ‘get it in writing’ on the face of an act of parliament than with this slippery government.

Claim 3. The specious claim it would make trade deals more difficult to negotiate.

MPs from all parties gave this argument short shrift. Jonathan Edwards (Plaid Cymru) intervened on Neil Parish (Conservative) to point out that enshrining standards in law would actually strengthen our negotiators’ hand. Neil Parish agreed.

“Would it not be right for the secretary of state for international trade to have the armour of parliament’s backing to say, ‘I can’t negotiate away that particular part of the deal with you because it is written down in law’?” Parish said.

Going further, Wera Hobhouse (Liberal Democrat) reminded the House that the Future British Standards Coalition had that very morning published its interim report, with evidence that it is possible to reject low-food-standard imports, remain WTO-compliant and still strike trade deals.

Claim 4. The bizarre suggestion that amendment 16 dramatically raises our current standards for imports, to the detriment of poor farmers in developing countries.

Only a cake-ist could make this argument. Has the government not spent the last four years telling us that EU laws, regulations and standards would be carried over into UK law on an ‘as is’ basis? How does ‘as is’ suddenly become ‘raising them dramatically’?

It is touching to see such concern for farmers in developing countries, but it is not credible. This is the government that has just deprived 47 less developed countries (LDCs) access to our market on a zero-tariff/zero-quota basis through the EU’s ‘Everything but Arms’ (EBA) trade agreements, because – Brexit. It has shown such concern for developing countries that it has downgraded our world-leading Department for International Development (DfID) to an adjunct of the Foreign Office and syphoned £2.9bn off DfID’s budget.

No wonder this ‘feels’ like a Cummingsonian attempt to manipulate us by tugging on our heart-strings. Developing countries won’t be able to meet our standards, they say. Our imports will dramatically decline, and that will have a knock-on effect for British companies’ supply chains, which will be severely disruptive and may put some of them out of business, they say. Oh, woe is me!

Four things. First, they are inflicting Brexit on us without batting an eyelid, in the midst of a lethal global pandemic, the worst economic downturn in our history and during the winter flu season – despite it causing far greater disruption to British companies than enacting amendment 16 would. The prime minister’s stated attitude is “F**k Business”. Second, these countries were already exporting to us when we were in the EU, and have already made the investment to meet required EU standards, which are ostensibly the same as ours. Third, flannelling about coffee and bananas is meaningless, as we don’t grow them here, so which of our standards would keep them out? They’re not banned now, are they? Fourth, companies from other developed countries manage to sell their products all over the world, without their governments “betraying their populations and farmers through the food that they produce and feed to their children”, as SNP MP David Doogan so colourfully put it.

As someone who worked in LDCs for many years, I find the tone of some MPs patronising and paternalistic in the extreme. It is unwise and unkind to underestimate LDCs’ ability to innovate to meet our standards. This unimaginative government is missing a massive opportunity to put its money where its mouth is, by co-ordinating trade and aid. Where a country does not meet our standards, but we want to trade with them, we could put in place a plan with a glide path for them to meet those standards, with UK technical assistance and aid to help them do it. That way we trade and use aid to help improve LDCs’ standards, improvements which eventually spread to their non-exporting enterprises and embed. A virtuous circle.

Claim 5. The disproved claim that it would deny the least affluent Brits a cheaper source of food.

The irony is, products produced cheaply won’t necessarily be cheaper to the British consumer, poor or otherwise. Tariffs are only one element of price. The prices of a commodity fluctuate, due to a variety of factors, including the exchange rate. At the moment, there’s not a lot of difference between, say, farm-gate beef prices in the UK and those in the United States. We’d roll over and assume the dead hamster position on food and farming standards and accept low-welfare, inferior food products, for no gain! Is it worth it?

Claim 6. It is unnecessary: the trade and agriculture commission will scrutinize trade deals for violations of our standards, and we should trust the consumer.

How extraordinary to put so much faith in a temporary body that has only been set up as a sop to the National Farmers’ Union. It will last for only six months and has next to no clout. It is packed with government cronies like Shanker Singham of the ultra-right-wing Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), to the exclusion of important stakeholders. You may as well believe that putting a fox in your hen-house is the best way to keep them safe.

As to ‘trusting the consumer’, that’s all very well and good if the consumer has the necessary data to make an informed decision. This is very much not the case. We enter the realms of ‘caveat emptor’ (‘buyer beware’) and dog-eat-dogism where marketing (not unlike political campaigning) is designed to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes. One thing the EU did well was to balance the competing interests of corporations, workers and consumers. Unfortunately, our government thinks the measures that protect workers and consumers are ‘red tape’. These protections are what it is referring to when it boasts of a bonfire of EU regulations – regulations that protect YOU.

In its trade negotiations, the United States typically insists that there be no informative food labelling, even to the point of removing country of origin. Canada, for example, prohibits the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), a manmade bovine hormone that increases lactation in cows, because it was found to be too stressful for cows. The United States does not. As a result of the new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canada is obliged to open a portion of its market to milk from American cows. There’s nothing in the labelling to inform the consumer about the source of the milk. (Fortunately, in this particular case, there is a workaround, in that consumers can avoid hormone-laden milk, which may have harmful side effects in humans, by sticking to those brands labelled ‘100 per cent Canadian’.)

Anyone still think a US–UK free trade agreement won’t hurt our food safety and animal welfare standards?

Claim 7. The objection that enshrining our standards in law would lead to contradictions.

Anthony Browne (Conservative) feels there is a contradiction between us wanting to be world leading on environmental standards, and then insisting we will only trade with those who have the same standards. In the hands of this hapless government, he may have a point, but in a well-designed system that would not be the case. (See the proposal under claim 4 to combine trade with an aid package to help developing countries reach our standards.) The problem here seems to be lack of ambition, consistency and imagination.

Where Browne may have a valid point is in highlighting an unintended consequence that the amendment applies to trade only where there is a free trade agreement, so trade with countries with lower standards could still go ahead on WTO rules. Clearly this loophole would have to be addressed in the ‘well-designed system’ to be put in place for trade plus aid.

Is there not a greater risk of woolly-mammoth-sized hypocrisy than contradictions, if we ignore a trading partner’s poor environmental standards and effectively use trade to off-shore our pollution and other concerns? Michael Gove seemed to think so when he told the BBC’s Countryfile in 2018: “There’s no point in having high animal welfare and high environmental standards if you allow them to be undercut from the outside.”

Claim 8. The fear our trading partners will never agree to respect the standards, and the entirely false claim that no other country or trade bloc imposes such requirements.

From classic Brit-flick Chariots of Fire:

“If I can’t win, I won’t run,” says sprinter Harold Abrahams.

“If you won’t run, you can’t win,” replies opera singer Sybille Gordon.

Why is our government conceding defeat before it has even tried? Talk about ‘talking the country down’. This is such a contrast to the belligerent Bullingdon bully-boy tone it adopts with the EU, barking demands that many of us find to be outrageous, in a tone we find to be excruciatingly bad mannered, embarrassing and shameful.

As to the false claim that no other country or trade bloc imposes such requirements, Hilary Benn gave various examples of the EU including animal welfare standards in trade deals. He also informed the House about California’s “cruel confinement law”, which not only bans the use of sow stalls in that state, but bans the sale in California of pork produced in other American states that still use sow stalls.

Here is what the EU has to say about imposing its standards on trading partners:

“The European Commission works to ensure that Europe’s food supply is the safest in the world and that the same standards of food safety apply to all products regardless of origin. As the world’s biggest importer and exporter of foodstuffs, the European Union works closely with international organisations and offers advice as well as assistance to non-EU country trading partners.”

Why would ‘Global Britain find it so hard to do what the US state of California, the EU and various other countries are doing?

Claim 9. The disingenuous claim that parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinize deals.

We are really through the looking glass on this one. Parliament, or rather the overwhelming Tory majority within it, has voted not to give itself this power – TWICE. This means parliament does not have a say on the government’s negotiating objectives, nor on key issues during the negotiation. It may get a ratification vote, but that will be an accept/reject proposition at the end of what may be a lengthy negotiation process, when it may be too late to alter the deal in any meaningful way.

The three-tiered process set out by International Trade Secretary Liz Truss, consists of:

  • Independently verified assessment including animal welfare
  • Full scrutiny by the international trade select committee
  • CRaG process for parliament to have a say (under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, treaties subject to ratification have to be laid before parliament for 21 sitting days before they can be ratified).

This has been forensically examined by British trade expert David Henig and found to be “wholly inadequate”. He concluded:

“Sorry to say the proposals made by the Department for International Trade for scrutiny of trade agreements show disdain for parliament, devolved authorities and everyone on whose behalf they are negotiating.”

Claim 10. A cult-like devotion to free trade at the expense of all else.

Free trade zealots want Britain to be the champion of free trade, seemingly to the detriment of everything else we hold dear. You want to insist on enhanced animal welfare standards once Brexit is completed? Tough, they say. You want to continue to enjoy high food standards? You should have voted ‘Remain’, they quip. Nothing can get in the way of free trade. Not our culture, our values or our moral compass. Everything must be sacrificed on the high altar of political ideology.

Never mind that adherence to a purist free trade dogma has a shameful legacy, having exacerbated Ireland’s Great Famine in the 1800s. In the name of ‘perfect free trade’ Tory MP Charles Edward Trevelyan insisted that Irish corn be sold to the highest bidder, rather than used to feed the domestic population that was starving due to the failure of the potato crop. Endowed with a true blue ‘if the poor are poor, they have only themselves to blame’ attitude, he closed the depots that were handing out food relief to the poor. Over one million people died.

I’m with Labour leader Keir Starmer when he says Britain could be a beacon of high food safety, animal welfare and environmental standards, and Tory MP Steve Brine who says enshrining them in law would send out a message to the world that we are serious about our standards and invite the world to join us in adopting them.

What is most disappointing about this list of claims is that it doesn’t provide a solution to, or even take into consideration the need to prevent, British farmers being undercut by the absence of a level playing field. Some Tory MPs consider it protectionism, to help prevent our farmers going bankrupt because they follow our world-leading standards, when farmers from other countries who do not can freely undercut them.

This is not a question of protectionism, which involves shielding your industries to give them an unmerited advantage in their home market and deliberately diminishing trade with other countries by unfairly taxing imports. Rather it is a question of not going too far the other way, and unduly disadvantaging our domestic industries. In the case of farming and food production, this would lead to job losses, risks to national food security, a bigger carbon footprint as food miles increase, off-shored pollution/welfare issues and a deleterious impact on our countryside. Other countries, including LDCs, all have governments that look after their farmers’ and consumers’ interests. Shouldn’t our government look after British farmers and British consumers?