UK ministers accused of ‘dodging’ tough trade-offs to protect standards in post-Brexit trade deals

Ministers ‘evade’ the difficult compromises needed to protect British environmental and agricultural standards when signing international trade agreements, according to the head of the government’s independent commission on trade and agriculture.

The intervention by Tim Smith comes when the government did not respond to the findings of its panel, which were published in March before the parliamentary summer recess on Thursday. The report was commissioned by ministers in an effort to alleviate fears that post-Brexit trade deals would lead to lower standards.

Smith, chairing the 15-person panel set up after more than a million people signed a petition demanding legal protection for British food standards, said it was failing to respond to the commission’s recommendations. raised worrying questions.

“Farmers and those who have contributed to the work of the commission are entitled to think that if [the government is] “if they do not respond, they will go back to the commitments made when the commission was set up,” he said.

“The ongoing delay indicates a continuing tendency to evade some of the difficult compromises that need to be resolved,” Smith said.

The UK’s independent trade policy after Brexit has proved hugely controversial. The National Farmers’ Union has warned that the trade agreement signed with Australia in June could cause the ‘slow death’ of the countryside as British farmers are undermined by Australian imports produced to lower standards.

Premier Boris Johnson visits a farm with NFU President Minette Batters
Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Longstone Moor Farm, Derbyshire with NFU President Minette Batters | © John Cottle / NFU

Minette Batters, president of the NFU – which had a representative in the commission – said it was “critically important” that the government responds to the commission’s report, as it is actively negotiating new agreements, including an agreement with New Zealand to be closed this year. .

‘If it does not happen [respond] “At the moment – or it is delayed until the autumn – it sends a clear message that they are negotiating without a comprehensive trade strategy for food and farming,” she said.

Officials have indicated that the government is likely to react in September after the summer recess of parliament, which would be six months after publication.

Trade Minister Liz Truss said at the start of the commission that he would consider policies “to ensure that British farmers do not face unfair competition and that their high animal welfare and production standards are not undermined”.

However, the government has blocked all attempts by MPs and pressure groups to block legal guarantees for the maintenance of standards and raised questions about how seriously the government ever intended to heed the commission’s advice.

Two other commissioners also expressed concern about the government’s slow response, warning that it would lose public support for its international trade policy agenda.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said the group was “disappointed” that the government was not responding. “We believe it has struck the right balance for UK consumers to reap the benefits of free trade, while ensuring that UK farmers rely on them to compete on a level playing field,” he said.

Caroline Drummond, CEO of Leaf, a sustainable group pressure group for farming, said the government should respond to the report “sooner rather than later” in order to maintain public confidence.

‘The opportunity now is for the government to develop a new model, based on trust and ambition, working with NGOs, industry and environmentalists to create trade deals that will retain and preserve public procurement. [the] integrity of our farmers, ”she said.

The government said it was “carefully” considering the commission’s report’s recommendations, adding: “Our response will set out how we strive to meet the great opportunities the United Kingdom now has as an independent trading nation. while also committing the government to maintaining and protecting the UK’s high standards of food safety for agri-food. ”

Additional reporting by Jim Pickard

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