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The government has defeated a Tory rebellion intended to stop the UK importing “poorer quality” food after signing free trade deals with Donald Trump’s United States or other countries.
Tory MP Neil Parish’s amendment to ensure agriculture imports adhere to UK animal health and welfare, environment and environmental standards was rejected by 328 votes to 277, majority 51.
There appeared to be 22 Tory rebels, including chancellor Rishi Sunak, but Commons deputy speaker Eleanor Laing later confirmed that some MPs had accidentally voted the wrong way as they were trialling a new electronic voting system.
The move against Parish’s amendment will once again raise fears that the UK could water down its standards as it strikes post-Brexit free trade deals.
Agriculture, fisheries and food minister Victoria Prentis insisted that all current EU food import standards would be converted into domestic law, including a ban on growth hormones in beef and chlorine-washed chicken – which is among the greatest concerns about a US free trade deal.
But Parish, Tory chair of the Commons environment, food and rural affairs committee, said MPs should not be frightened of ensuring US food imported to the UK “cannot undercut our present production methods” and animal welfare.
Calling on MPs to amend the agriculture bill, he said: “I would say quite clearly to the secretary of state for trade [Liz Truss] she should actually spend her time going out and dealing with a trade deal that has equivalence and makes sure we actually export our very important animal and environmental welfare.
“And I’d say to the Americans, why don’t you upgrade your production? Why don’t you reduce the density of population of your chicken? Why don’t you reduce the amount of antibiotics you’re using and then you can actually produce better chicken? Not only for America – it can also come into this country.”
Parish said rebels and their cross-party backers were “being led down the garden path” by ministers, who urged them to wait to see future legislation on trade deals before attempting to put the guarantees in law.
Fellow Tory Simon Hoare said, without changes to the bill, “food imports to this country would be cheap for no other reason bar the fact that they were raised to lower standards”.
“Anybody can look at a whole variety of websites to realise some of the pretty horrendous ways in which livestock is raised in a number of countries across the world,” he said.
“And I think we should shun that and be a beacon for excellence and high standards.”
Labour’s shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard told the Commons that a failure to guarantee food standards in the agriculture bill could lead to a “race to the bottom”.
He said: “The political handcuffs placed on the environment secretary [George Eustice] and his ministers to tie them to oppose these reasonable, sensible, necessary and essential amendments betray the bigger political agenda at play here.”
Pollard added: “If orders are coming from the Department for International Trade then they have my sympathy for being caught in the invidious place of choosing between what is right and what they’re told to do.
“The inevitable deregulatory pressure from poorer quality food will put pressure on Britain to slash our high standards so farmers can compete.
“It would risk a race to the bottom.”
But Prentis said: “I’d like to reassure colleagues that all food coming into this country will be required to meet existing import requirements.
“At the end of the transition period, the Withdrawal Act will convert all EU standards into domestic law.
“This will include a ban on using artificial growth hormones in beef. Nothing apart from potable water may be used to clean chicken carcasses and any changes to these standards would have to come before this parliament.
“We will be doing our own inspections to ensure that these import conditions are met.”