The government’s approach to trade negotiations has come under renewed fire by parliamentarians, who have accused international trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan of disrespect and called for animal welfare and environmental standards to be prioritised in future agreements.
The International Trade Committee yesterday said Trevelyan had gone back on a promise to allow parliament enough time to assess the UK-Australia free trade deal, which was agreed last year.
The committee’s allegation was followed by the publication of an Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report on the deal today, which warned failing to apply “a core standards’ approach to animal welfare and the environment” could lead to the UK’s food industry “exporting cruelty and carbon emissions abroad”.
The Scottish National Party’s Angus MacNeil, chair of the trade committee, said Trevelyan had set an “outrageous precedent” for scrutiny of future deals by putting the Australia deal before parliament before the committee could draft a report on it.
“Parliamentary scrutiny has been hobbled,” he added.
The Efra Committee said while the UK-Australia FTA did not “prevent core standards being adopted in the future” and would not lead to “much food that doesn’t meet these standards” entering the UK, committing to standards around deforestation and hormone growth chemicals would “strengthen the UK’s hand” in current and future trade talks.
And while it was “unlikely” the Australia deal would see “food produced to lower standards, in areas like animal welfare” entering the UK – an accusation levelled at the government several times by farmers and meat sector representatives – it was nonetheless “disappointing”, the committee said, ”that the deal did not include more far-reaching provisions on animal welfare, which would have shown greater international leadership by the UK in this area”.
Requesting the government pay closer attention to farmers and food producers when thrashing out future FTAs, the committee acknowledged while the UK-Australia FTA would be also “unlikely” to have any “significant, immediate impact on UK cattle and sheep farmers” – mostly as Australia has much bigger and more profitable markets in Asia to target – the lifting of limits on exports after 15 years could British farms come under pressure from bigger rivals Down Under, particularly if the tetchy relationship between Australia and its biggest trade partner China deteriorated further.
The UK more recently opened free trade negotiations with India and Mexico, and has sought to convince the US to think about a deal – a prospect the US has warned could hinge on the implementation of the EU-UK deal and in particular the Northern Ireland Protocol, which the UK this week said it wanted to amend.
Despite not being a Pacific Rim nation, the UK has also lined up membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-country deal signed by, among others, Australia, Canada, Japan and Singapore – nations that the UK has strong commercial ties with.
While the UK was always likely to struggle to replace the free trade deals it was party to by dint of its now-defunct EU membership, recent months have seen an uptick in food and drink trade with nations outside the bloc, with the Food and Drink Federation last month reporting record exports to the rest of the world during the first quarter of the year.