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Director of Policy's Blog - 16 March 2020

These are certainly unprecedented times, but politics and political processes continue apace. While people in key posts might change, the Union’s priorities do not. A new UK Agriculture Minister may have stepped into the role vacated by George Eustice’s promotion to Secretary of State in the February reshuffle, but that will not change our focus on the critical issues for Scottish agriculture, writes Director of Policy Jonnie Hall.

Last week Andrew McCornick and I had our first meeting with Victoria Prentis MP, the new Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Defra.  As such meetings go this was very informal, being hosted on farm by Morag and Jackie Rennie at Mill of Crimond near Fraserburgh. That said, it was a clear opportunity for us to lay down one particular marker at a time that matters.

Afterall, Minister Prentis is someone we have to engage with given her responsibility for steering the UK Agriculture Bill through the parliamentary process.  And it’s clear that she has picked up exactly where her predecessor left off.  There appears to be no deviation from the existing Government position.  

So when pressed on the need to build standards on imports into the Bill it was no surprise that this was deflected in the same way as before. The familiar rhetoric about preventing domestic agricultural and food production from being undercut by imports of a lower standard rang out, but so did the contradiction that it was not the purpose of legislation to do this. Confused? Me too.

When we then raised the issue of some sort of Commission to oversee the standards on imported agri-food products the Minister was significantly warmer to the idea. Again, echoes of her predecessor and the words of Michael Gove when he held the post of Secretary of State within Defra.  But establishing a Commission and setting out the terms of its governance if it were to be at all fit for purpose would surely have to require legislation of some sort.  No legislation, no teeth.

Throughout the Westminster process there has been significant debate, and many proposed amendments, all intended to stitch standards into the Bill.  At every turn, the UK Government has resisted this. So how do we best manoeuvre to enshrine commitments to upholding food standards in law? 

In short, all the amendments to date have fallen into one of three camps: Those that seek to ban imports that do not meet UK standards; those that would put in place mechanisms for monitoring and managing imports, such as a Standards Commission, and; those which would require parliamentary scrutiny to ensure that imported food would have been produced to equivalent or higher standards than those applicable in the UK before a trade agreement could be ratified.

Looking at the pros and cons of proposed amendments, and the political likelihood of gaining necessary cross-party support to get an amendment over the finish line and written into the Bill, the current front-runner has to be the latest from the influential House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee, chaired by Neil Parish MP, and which commands cross-party support.

Last week, the EFRA Committee tabled an amendment to the Bill following evidence on how the UK could ensure that imports under new trade agreements are produced to the high animal welfare and environmental standards to which domestic production adheres. The amendment, reiterating the points made in a 2018 EFRA Committee report on the first version of the Bill, would ensure that food products imported as part of any future trade deal meet or exceed British standards relating to production, animal welfare and the environment.

Reflecting the very lines that the Union have been taking for many months, Neil Parish said “lowering food production standards should not be a bargaining chip to be used in future trade deals - allowing imports to be produced in ways that are illegal here would severely undercut British farmers. For these reasons, we are calling on the Government to uphold its commitments by amending the Agriculture Bill.”

As a result, over the next few weeks we will be focusing on pinpoint engagement with the MPs that can make a difference when it matters. Because standards matter to us all.

So why not sign up to the NFU online petition with the specific goal of putting laws in place that prevent imports of food that is produced in ways that are illegal in the UK at https://www.countrysideonline.co.uk/back-british-farming/back-british-farming-our-latest-activity/food-standards-petition/our-food-standards-campaign-the-journey-so-far/?utm_source=website&utm_medium=countryside_online&utm_campaign=petition&utm_content=petititionupdatesthankyouemail

Author: Jonnie Hall

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About The Author

Jonnie Hall

NFU Scotland’s Director of Policy Jonnie Hall has been involved with agricultural and rural policy for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (BSc. Honours in Agricultural Economics and an M.Phil. in agricultural policy research) and Oxford University (MSc. in Agricultural Economics). Following an academic and consultancy career, Jonnie joined what was the Scottish Landowners’ Federation in January 1998, leading their policy work on agriculture and land use issues. Jonnie then joined NFU Scotland in May 2007, and has overall responsibility for the policy work of NFU Scotland as Director of Policy and Member Services. He has served on all key rural and agricultural policy stakeholder groups.

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