Parliament must scrutinise the Australian trade deal to ensure British farmers are not undercut
The vague details of the deal that have been released so far have caused significant concern to farmers and seem to cut across the TAC’s recommendations.
The government is adamant that leaving the EU provides nothing but the brightest of opportunities for British farmers and producers. It is certainly true that we now have the chance to strike fresh trade deals, which could set a precedent worldwide for including high standards on animal welfare, environmental standards and food safety.
As Chair of the Commons' EFRA Committee, I naturally support these aims, but I am also concerned. Currently the government has provided little beyond hot air by way of assurance that its new trade deals will uphold high British standards and not undercut our farmers.
The government had been making the right noises. In July 2020, the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, established a new independent body, the Trade and Agriculture Commission (the TAC). The intention was for the new, apolitical Commission to consider views from across the agriculture and trade sectors, gather the expertise of specialists, and produce a set of recommendations for the government that would place the interests of British farmers, producers and consumers to the fore. The timing was spot-on; the Commission published its report in March this year, ready for the government to take its conclusions on board before setting about finalising details of new trade agreements.
However, the government yesterday announced a new UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), before responding to the TAC’s report. The vague details of the deal that have been released so far have caused significant concern to farmers and seem to cut across the TAC’s recommendations.
Parliament, and my Committee, will of course be looking closely at the detail of the agreement once it is finalised and published. To assist with that, Parliament put the TAC on a statutory footing. This new statutory TAC must scrutinise and report to Parliament on the FTA before it is ratified to give us assurance that it won’t undercut British farmers and consumers.
To press ahead without first engaging with the TAC's findings is nonsensical, and makes a mockery of the independent body
However, the government is dragging its feet on appointing its chair and members and refusing to say what support it will be provided with to examine long and complicated documents.
This delay in appointing a chair is wasting valuable time, during which Parliament could be scrutinising the proposed deal and ensuring the best possible deal for British farmers. The government must announce the Commission's membership as soon as possible.
The creation of the TAC had given British farmers and food producers hope that their concerns would be taken into account when negotiating new deals. To press ahead without first engaging with the TAC's findings is nonsensical, and makes a mockery of the independent body.
In a letter to my Committee, the International Trade Secretary stated that the TAC was not, in fact, intended to influence FTA negotiations but instead to advise on future strategy. It seems clear to me that an FTA with such a key trading partner as Australia would form part of said future strategy. The government's current plan seems willing to bypass the very advice it commissioned, making hasty agreements that it may regret – particularly if British farmers end up worse off.
Over the past few weeks, my Committee have written to the International Trade Secretary, urging first the publication of details of the UK-Australia FTA. Yesterday, we called for the government to respond to the TAC's recommendations as a matter of urgency. The farming sector, which the TAC has worked hard to engage with, deserve a response. If Ministers cannot do this in writing before the summer recess, they are more than welcome to so orally before our Committee.
Neil Parish is the Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton and chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
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