Minette Batters is the President of the National Farmers Union.
Today, MPs will once again be debating the Agriculture Bill in the Commons, and once again the critical issue of how we can strike out as an independent trading nation while safeguarding our food and farming standards will be addressed. But time is running out for Parliamentarians and government to come up with a definitive answer.
This has become one of the defining issues that has emerged from Brexit. Now we have left the EU, we have the freedom to negotiate our own trade deals and to define our own standards.
I want to be part of that – selling more of our great British food abroad, and using our import policy to drive the competitiveness of our farmers. But we are also facing the reality of a world with different values and priorities to our own, and with different approaches to food and farming.
It is difficult to disentangle this debate from the wider question of what it means to take back control and to take a new role on the world stage as Global Britain. Our voice will have regained its individuality, but we are no longer backed by the economic status of being part of the largest economy on the globe. This forces us to make some tough choices – and so it is vital that those choices are made by our elected representatives in Parliament. Proper Parliamentary accountability: that is what this current debate on trade and standards boils down to.
I was struck by the recent furore over the Internal Market Bill and the Withdrawal Agreement. It seems that many of those who vocally supported the Withdrawal Agreement earlier this year were disappointed with some of the fine print. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that particular issue, it was a stark reminder of what can happen when critical, international agreements are not properly scrutinised.
The Withdrawal Agreement runs to some 540 pages. A typical trade deal can be three times bigger. The EU/Canada agreement, for example, runs to nearly 1600 pages. Without proper scrutiny, it’s obvious that our future trade deals could hide all sorts of commitments we should at least be aware of.
A former Tory Prime Minister, the Earl of Derby, compared the development of the UK constitution with an old country house, added to over the years with a window here and a gable there. Well, that is the nature of the system we are relying on to scrutinise trade deals – cobbled together from different materials accumulated over centuries.
But with Brexit, we have cleared the furniture and can now take care of the leaky plumbing and fraying electrics. We should take the chance to create a bespoke system of trade scrutiny while we can.
We are told that our current arrangements for scrutinising trade deals are fine. But this is not the opinion of a number of recent Parliamentary select committee inquires and independent assessments.
The truth is, if you wanted a system that ran a high chance of side-lining MPs from having a really good say on trade policy, then the current arrangements under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRAG) would do the job.
Yes, MPs can vote against a trade deal, but they have 21 days to read these enormous tomes, and – as a negative resolution process – they then need to get themselves organised to pray against it. And repeatedly, every 21 days. There is no requirement for government to provide time to debate or vote on the deal.
It’s also important to recognise that changes to our domestic standards that result from trade deals will require domestic legislation to implement, including changes to our food standards.
This is an extra layer of Parliamentary involvement – but, again, it is very weak. Nearly all would be via secondary legislation, mostly through negative resolutions. I wonder how often any of our current MPs have voted against a Statutory Instrument under the negative resolution procedure – the last time such an instrument was defeated in the Commons was 1979. Robust Parliamentary scrutiny it isn’t.
Perhaps most concerningly of all, there are in fact no safeguards in domestic law for standards in areas such as animal welfare or environmental protection which can be used to control imports. I believe our food safety standards are strong. But in trade policy these cannot be extended to concerns over the way food is produced – for instance on animal welfare or environmental measures.
This is a reflection of international trade law, not on the Government, but it throws into sharp relief the reality behind the assurances we are given that our standards have been safeguarded in law after Brexit. Quite simply, they haven’t.
To be fair, Liz Truss and the Department for International Trade have recently indicated that they are looking at ways of facilitating greater Parliamentary scrutiny – providing select committees with advance sight of deals, making Parliamentary time available for debates, and providing impact assessments to inform MPs. But all of this is somewhat cobbled together and informal and could easily be reversed in future. There is no safeguard that such a system will remain in place, or even used for each and every deal. We need more.
So what would that look like?
First, we need a clear and simple process that ensures Parliament is given time to consider the details of any trade deals – 21 days is too short. Next, here needs to be formal, independent and expert evidence on those trade deals for Parliament to consider too, again something that needs more than 21 days. Finally, Parliament needs to be formally provided with sufficient time to debate these deals and to vote on whether they should be ratified or not. Relying on an outdated system that only allows them to continuously delay ratification every 21 days, without debate, is quite plainly not fit for purpose.
Lord Curry’s amendment to the Bill – New Clause 18 – would have helped considerably. It would give MPs expert advice on the impact of trade deals before any such deals are signed. Unfortunately, it appears that the Speaker may not move the amendment for debate. Nevertheless, the principles behind it stand, and the issues will still be debated under New Clause 16, which calls for imports under future trade deals to meet equivalent standards to those in the UK.
The moment has come. The implications of the result of the EU referendum must now be addressed. If Brexit was about anything, it was taking back control. Many farmers, who have close and strong links with their MPs, had become exasperated by decisions they saw as being made by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. They will not be impressed if in future decisions that could be existential for their businesses are taken by faceless negotiators in Whitehall and the negotiating rooms of Washington, Canberra and Wellington. Tonight, during the debate on the Agriculture Bill, I hope MPs will make these points loud and clear to government.