Government accused of sending out ‘wrong message’ as it wins vote on Brexit Agriculture Bill

Save British Farming protesting at Westminster as the Agriculture Bill is debated Picture: AARON CH

Save British Farming protesting at Westminster as the Agriculture Bill is debated Picture: AARON CHOWN/PA WIRE - Credit: PA

A bid to enshrine food safety into law and require imported food to meet domestic legal standards was defeated this week with the help of all Suffolk and north Essex MPs - except one.

Conservative MP for Waveney Peter Aldous who rebelled over Amendment 16 of the Agriculture Bill Pic

Conservative MP for Waveney Peter Aldous who rebelled over Amendment 16 of the Agriculture Bill Picture: AMY SMITH - Credit: Archant

Waveney MP Peter Aldous defied the party line as the Conservatives used their thumping majority to reject the latest attempt to use the Agriculture Bill to tie the government tightly to the standards while negotiating its new post-Brexit trade deals.

The party argues that the laws already exist – so imports would have to conform anyway, and that European Union rules banning imports of chlorine-washed chicken and other products will be automatically adopted once the post-Brexit transition period ends on December 31. The opposition was “fear-mongering” and measures proposed would be bad for trade, its side insisted.

MORE – Furious beet farmers up in arms over sugar imports plansBut farmers accused the party of undermining the industry, and opposition MPs – and some Tory rebel MPs including Mr Aldous whose family owns a farm on the Waveney/Suffolk Coastal border – sought stronger safeguards for British farmers through the negotiations.

The government did cruise through what became the key battleground – the Consideration of Lords Amendment 16 debate in the end with 332 ayes to 279 noes. But 14 Conservatives including Mr Aldous lined up with the majority of the opposition. Also among the rebels was Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman.

NFU president Minette Batters meeting with prime minister Boris Johnson in Downing Street on October

NFU president Minette Batters meeting with prime minister Boris Johnson in Downing Street on October 14, 2020 Picture: ANDREW PARSONS - Credit: Archant

The British farming sector is seeking certainty and safeguards to enable it to invest in the future, said Mr Aldous, who added that he felt it was important for parliament to scrutinise Britain’s future trade deals.

And with intense lobbying still ongoing – including from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and Country Land and Business Association (CLA) - the government remains under pressure to ensure British farmers aren’t undercut by cheap imports produced to a different standard.

With a 1 million-strong NFU petition calling for food standards to be protected under her belt, president Minette Batters met with prime minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday (October 14) to urge him to ensure safeguards for the industry were iron-clad and to argue for parliamentary scrutiny.

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Mr Aldous said he felt that Brexit was a chance to reset farming policy and set out an “exciting vision” for the industry. He was a partner in a family farm in Suffolk so did have an interest, he added.

“I think when it comes to the Agriculture Bill I do feel that in line with both the EU and the US the legislature – parliament – should have an opportunity to scrutinise trade deals. I’m not saying ‘thwart trade deals’ but one needs to go into them fully knowing what’s happening,” he said.

“I think the farming industry is united on this one.”

East Anglia and Suffolk had a “huge” farming and food sector, he said, including pigs, poultry and sugar beet – all of which would be affected.

“We mustn’t go blindly into trade deals without having the opportunity to scrutinise them,” he said. He felt the Lords amendment to the bill was “balanced and practical”, adding that his concern over imports was around “means of production” against the UK’s ethical and sustainable methods.

“I would hope that government would take on board these concerns – we are meant to be embracing a new way of doing things,” he said.

“I think it sends out the wrong message to agriculture when agriculture is looking for leadership and guidance so we can invest,” he added.

NFU Suffolk chairman Glenn Buckingham said they were trying to find a way through some complicated issues. “We want to make sure we are not undermined,” he said. “I think the majority (of farmers) would realise that the environmental and welfare standards we have are the right ones and they are glad we are where we are, and our consumers want them. I think we would find it difficult to regress.”

But with the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge to maintain food standards he remained optimistic a way through would be found.

Andrew Blenkiron, director of the Euston Estate, near Thetford, and deputy chairman at NFU Suffolk, said he was disappointed at the way the vote went, adding that it undermined the industry.

“There is lots of complexity in the bill. I suppose that we have basically started to accept that it will determine and change farmers futures, but it has all boiled down to the standards of food that British people are going to have to eat in the future,” he said.

“Despite one or two of our local MPs voting with their principles the rest of the government have decided that the amendments from the House of Lords aren’t worthwhile.

“They have decided to undermine our industry and allow food that is produced to lower environmental and welfare standards into our shops – not a good way to support the hard work that British farmers have put into producing food to the highest standards in the world.”

He is hoping MPs will “see sense” when the bill comes back from the House of Lords next time. “If everyone lets their MPs know how they feel on this issue it just might help,” he added.

The Conservative MPs in Suffolk and north Essex who voted with the government on the Agriculture Bill amendment were: Kerrie Badenoch (Saffron Walden), James Cartlidge (South Suffolk), Jo Churchill (Bury St Edmunds), James Cleverly (Braintree), Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal), Matt Hancock (West Suffolk), Tom Hunt (Ipswich), Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and north Essex), Priti Patel (Witham), Dan Poulter (Central Suffolk and north Ipswich), Will Quince (Colchester), Giles Watling (Clacton) and John Whittingdale (Maldon).