I agree that we must make sure we do not allow trade deals to undermine our environmental and animal welfare standards. I know that the overwhelming majority of my colleagues support this, as does the Government as it was a commitment in the Conservative manifesto at the General Election last year.
The amendment sounds entirely reasonable, but its consequences could be utterly unreasonable. It is based on very solid principles which we can all support, but simply legislating good principles rarely makes for good law.
The House of Lords well-intentioned but ill thought-out amendment to the Agriculture Bill would ban imports of tea, coffee and bananas into the UK, devastating many of the world’s poorest economies and effectively bans food imports from developed nations which have a trade deal with us – but allows them from those that do not.
Even its supporters should accept from the outset that this law is not a preservation of our current standards on imports – which are the same as the EUs – but a dramatic raising of them. Many imports that are legal under EU trade deals would become illegal if we pass this law and roll over the trade deals. The EU is instinctively protectionist but even it does not require that all imports have to precisely meet our environmental and animal welfare standards.
We import bananas from many countries including the Dominican Republic, Belize and Cameroon. We import coffee from Indonesia, Ghana and Vietnam and black tea from Kenya. We do all this under existing (EU) rules. But this amendment would require all these countries to have processes in place to show that they meet thousands of pages of UK domestic environmental and animal welfare legislation. The cost would be prohibitive, but also unnecessary: I can tell you for free that they do not meet the carbon emission targets of the Climate Change Act that are now UK law. If we pass this amendment, pretty much all food imports would be banned from pretty much all developing countries if we signed a trade deal with them.
Developed nations can better afford to provide the evidence that they meet UK standards, but many of them are seriously inappropriate. Our geography and climate means we need strict legal controls on nitrate concentration in soils, which are inappropriate for other countries. We have laws (to protect nesting birds) on what time of year farmers are allowed to cut hedges, which would be completely wrong-headed to impose on producers with different eco-systems.
There is also the bizarre unintended consequence that the amendment only applies to trade where there is a trade agreement. So we could import coffee from Vietnam if we have don’t have a trade agreement, but if we do have a trade agreement we would have to ban coffee imports. Our trade deals would become anti-trade deals.
The EU rightly takes a more pragmatic approach focussing on what actually matters, and so should we. The detail is so complex, we can’t tie the hands of our trade negotiators with blunt legislation, but rather we should examine in detail whether we support what they are proposing. That is why the government has agreed with campaigners to set up an independent Trade and Agriculture Commission to advise and warn on whether any deal being negotiated would undermine our standards or cause other problems.