Trade and Agriculture Commission: progress, yes, but dig deeper and grave concerns remain

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Government has adopted an annoying habit of leaking news late at night on Twitter, at the weekend, via one or two favoured pundits. Halloween was no exception, but instead of another frightener in the vein of ‘Lockdown – the Sequel’ slipped out earlier in the evening, this was good news. International Trade Secretary Liz Truss gave advance notice of a letter she had written jointly with Environment Secretary George Eustice for the Mail on Sunday with a big announcement: the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) is to be put on a statutory footing.

So what, you might ask? Well, being a statutory rather than an ad-hoc, time-limited commission means that its advice on trade deals will carry greater weight. Also, the TAC will provide an impact assessment report that will be laid before parliament in time for the commencement of the 21-day scrutiny period of trade deals under the terms of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (CRaG) 2010.

The Department of Trade has set out the terms of reference for the report the TAC must submit, requiring that it

  • considers the policies that government should adopt in free trade agreements to:
    • secure opportunities for UK farmers
    • ensure the sector remains competitive
    • make sure that animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined
  • reflects consumer interests and those of developing countries
  • considers how the UK engages the WTO to build a coalition that helps advance higher animal welfare standards across the world
  • develops trade policy that identifies and opens up new export opportunities for the UK agricultural industry – in particular for small and medium-sized businesses – and that benefits the UK economy as a whole

The announced change is, as I’ve said, good news, and has been heralded as such by both the government and the National Farmers’ Union (NFU). The government has said that “placing the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a full statutory footing will give British farmers and growers a stronger voice in UK trade policy.”

 NFU President and Wiltshire Farmer, Minette Batters, who recently held a private meeting with Boris Johnson to put the case of British farming to him, has said, “This significant commitment is exactly what we have been calling for. It is a landmark moment for the people of the UK, for our countryside and the future of the food on our plates.”

Are they right? Yes and no. While this is a positive step forward, there are three major problems. First of all, there is the composition of the TAC to consider. Presently, ‘free trade above all else’ arch libertarians sit on the commission. Shanker Singham (Anglo-American trade lawyer) and Sir Lockwood Smith (former New Zealand government minister) are both heavily connected with the ultra-right, US-funded think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). Why on earth has Liz Truss appointed two lobbyists for US agribusinesses to sit on the TAC? These are the two most egregious examples, but there are other libertarians sitting on the TAC, too.

The composition of the TAC will determine its effectiveness. Can we trust it, or is it just a talking shop for government cronies? Surely the TAC should represent the interests of the UK and the wishes of British voters? Given that one of the chief reasons the public gives for wanting to maintain our high food, farming and environmental standards is animal welfare, why is there no animal welfare expert on the TAC? Similarly, why are there no representatives to give voice to stakeholders focused on environmental issues, consumer affairs and relations with developing countries? It is interesting that consumers and developing countries share the same bullet point. Will their interests be played off, one against the other?

The second problem is the approval process of trade deals itself. This consists of three elements:

  • an independently verified impact assessment on our standards, including animal welfare, by the TAC;
  • full scrutiny by the international trade select committee, and
  • the CRaG process in which MPs 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).

British trade expert David Henig has concluded that this process is inadequate. In short, parliament’s involvement comes too late in the process, when, realistically, there is little chance that anything in the deal can be changed. At the last reading of the Trade Bill, Jonathan Djanogly laid an amendment that would have allowed MPs a say on the objectives at the start of the negotiation process, as well as a ratification vote, but sadly it was voted down.

Henig has pointed out the need for some scrutiny during the negotiations as well.

 “If the government only reports in a vague way on trade agreement negotiations before conclusion then the contents of any final agreement will be a complete surprise which Parliament will have 6 weeks to decode. That isn’t meaningful consultation in any sense.”

 For years, parliament has bemoaned the fact that it did not have scrutiny powers over trade deals at least as good as those of the EU parliament, but this current cohort of MPs is too cowed by the whip to rebel. MPs now have less of a say on trade deals than they did before Brexit. So much for ‘taking back control’!

The third problem relates to how food, animal welfare, farming, conservation and environmental standards were carried over into UK legislation from EU directives and regulations. The vehicle was the EU Withdrawal Act (EUWA) 2019, but this is imperfect legislation, riddled with holes. Specifically, Henry VIII clauses give ministers the power to override vast swathes of the EUWA using secondary legislation, typically in the form of statutory instruments. Additionally, it is important to note that not all EU law was transposed into UK law, the protocol on animal sentience being a prime example. Three years later, and there is still no equivalent in English and Welsh law.

Image by InspiredImages from Pixabay

We need to cut through the hubris in the Truss/Eustice letter (“heroic farmers” – flattery comes before a flaying) and the fluff (“going global” – we always were global; pretending we weren’t is talking British business down). Watch out for propaganda too – “British beef is now back on the US market”, well yes, but it’s because we’ve been free of mad cow disease long enough for the Americans to drop their ban; nothing to do with leaving the EU.

When we filter out all that, there’s one phrase that stands out: “using a range of tariffs, quotas and safeguards”. This is their plan then: to let the low-welfare food into the country, but to try to manage it through — you guessed it — “using a range of tariffs, quotas and safeguards”.

There may be appropriate labelling on food we buy in supermarkets (although the US is not keen!), but how will we know about the origin of food and its method of production in situations where we personally don’t control the procurement? Institutional food, such as meals in schools, hospitals and care homes, and the hospitality sector, including hotels, restaurants and other prepared food outlets, do not always give sufficient information for an individual to know what they’re eating.

We must also bear in mind that this government has consistently stated that once Brexit transition ends, it will take the opportunity to diverge from EU standards. Government ministers refuse to enshrine standards in law, because that would ‘tie their hands in trade negotiations’. That’s how you know the standards will be on the table and could be bargained away. While the strengthened TAC gives us another valuable tool, we must remain extremely vigilant.

If we truly want to save our standards, there is no substitute for putting them on the face of a Bill, and the most logical choice is the Agriculture Bill. It comes back to the Commons on 4 November. ‘Lockdown — the Sequel’, launching on fireworks day, is likely to take up a lot of bandwidth in the media, but food standards are too important to get lost in the bickering about what will be temporary restrictions. Please write to your MP, particularly if they are Conservative, and let them know why strengthening the TAC is a move in the right direction, but ultimately doesn’t go far enough and still offers plenty of avenues for abuse.

This article should give you the ammunition you need, but do visit the Save British Farming website, where you will find plenty of resources to help you.