MPs say the Truss administration needs to address food and agriculture sector concerns 

MPs have again called on the government to address criticisms that the Australia-UK free trade deal will undercut British farmers.

The Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee this week said the previous government led by Boris Johnson “did not engage with the central concern of UK farmers and producers about food and drink entering the UK which were made to lower standards and therefore cheaper, thus disadvantaging UK producers”. It called on the new government to “reconsider” its official response to the concerns raised.

In a letter to trade secretary Kemi Badenoch and her Defra counterpart Ranil Jayawardena, the committee said their predecessors merely “restate[d] that the Australia FTA would not lower the standards that UK producers have to meet” and called on the government to “review and update” the official response to concerns about the deal.

Efra committee member Neil Hudson, a Conservative MP, described the previous government’s response to the committee as “incredibly disappointing and unsatisfactory” and called for “core standards” around animal welfare to be “baked into these agreements”.

Responding to the committee’s criticisms. a DIT spokesman said “all agricultural imports will continue to need to meet our food safety requirements, and the independent Trade & Agriculture Commission has concluded that the agreement does not undermine the UK’s domestic protections.”

The British meat industry has repeatedly criticised the FTA, which has not yet been implemented, on the grounds that it would see the domestic market flooded with cheaper Australian beef and lamb produced to less exacting standards than in the UK. Similar criticisms were made of the UK’s FTA with New Zealand, which also awaits implementation.

AHDB said the concerns were overblown and would likely only arise if Australia and New Zealand’s long-standing presences in much bigger and closer markets in Asia were compromised. 

Australia has long been one of the world’s biggest suppliers of beef and lamb, including to the US, China and Japan – the world’s three biggest economies. Assessing the UK-Australia trade deal, industry body Meat and Livestock Australia said in June that “while UK retail has long run a campaign to ‘buy British’, consumers and trade are positively predisposed to Australian red meat, an affinity based on our shared culture and history”.

MPs urged to delay ratification of UK-Australia free trade deal

When the deal was signed last year, the government said it would mean “increased access to Australia for the UK’s powerhouse service sectors” and would “remove tariffs on all UK exports, making it cheaper to sell iconic products like cars, scotch whisky and UK fashion to Australia, while making Australian favourites like Jacob’s Creek and Hardys wines, Tim Tams and surfboards more accessible for British consumers”.

The parliamentary Trade Committee later criticised the government over the deal, accusing it of overselling the potential benefits to UK consumers. The FTA meant “products such as Australian wines likely becoming cheaper by just a few pence”, the committee reported recently.

Repeating concerns that the UK food industry was sidelined, the Efra committee this week added that the government should “commit” to an increase in UK food and drinks exports of “at least £278m”, which it said was the expected loss to the sector from the FTA.

Such “one-sided deals”, the committee said, “could have a much greater impact on the UK than the Australia FTA”, if applied to any would-be deals with Brazil and the US, which has in any case shown scant inclination to respond favourably to British government overtures about starting talks. 

The UK has, since early this year, also been negotiating an FTA with India, another major food producer, with the previous Johnson-led government hoping to come to terms with Delhi by the end of this month.

However, the deal, which would be the biggest by far of the UK’s post-Brexit agreements, could be under threat, as the Indian government was reportedly this week angered by recent comments by home secretary Suella Braverman, who said Indians made up the biggest number of visa overstayers in the UK.