Ministers are “dodging” the tough trade-offs needed to protect UK environmental and agricultural standards when signing international trade deals, according to the head of the government’s independent Trade and Agriculture Commission.
The intervention by Tim Smith came as the government failed to respond to his panel’s findings published in March before the parliamentary summer recess on Thursday. The report was commissioned by ministers in an attempt to assuage fears that post-Brexit trade deals would lead to lower standards.
Smith, who headed the 15-person panel set up after more than a million people signed a petition demanding legal protections for UK food standards, said the failure to respond to the commission’s recommendations raised worrying questions.
“Farmers and those who have contributed to the commission’s work will be entitled to think that if [the government is] not responding, they will be going back on the commitments made when the commission was set up,” he said.
“The ongoing delay suggests a continued inclination to dodge some of the hard trade-offs that need to be resolved,” said Smith, who previously headed the Food Standards Agency and worked as group quality director at Tesco.
The UK’s post-Brexit independent trade policy has proved hugely controversial. The National Farmers’ Union warned that the trade deal signed with Australia in June could cause the “slow death” of the countryside as British farmers were undercut by Australian imports produced to lower standards.
Minette Batters, president of the NFU — which had a representative on the commission — said it was “critically important” the government responded to the commission’s report given that it is actively negotiating new deals, including one with New Zealand due to be concluded this year.
“If it doesn’t [respond] imminently — or it delays 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 a government response is likely in September, after parliament’s summer recess, which would be six months after publication.
Liz Truss, the trade minister, said when the commission was launched that it would consider policies “to ensure UK farmers do not face unfair competition and that their high animal welfare and production standards are not undermined”.
However, the government has blocked all efforts by MPs and pressure groups to create legal guarantees on maintaining standards, raising questions as to how seriously the government ever intended to heed the commission’s advice.
Two other commissioners also voiced concerns about the government’s slow response, warning that it risked losing 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” the government had not acted on the report. “We felt it struck the right balance for UK consumers of delivering the benefits of free trade whilst ensuring the British farmers they rely on are competing on a level playing field,” he said.
Caroline Drummond, chief executive of Leaf, a sustainable farming pressure group, said the government needed to respond to the report “sooner rather than later” to retain public trust.
“The opportunity now is for the government to develop a new model, based on trust and ambition, that works with NGOs, industry and environmentalists to create trade deals that will retain the buy-in of the public and preserve [the] integrity of our farmers,” she said.
The government said it was considering the recommendations of the commission’s report “carefully,” adding: “Our response will set out how we aim to meet the immense opportunities the UK now has as an independent trading nation while also upholding the government’s commitment to maintaining and protecting the UK’s high agri-food safety standards.”
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard